Brain Drain

The NYT’s “political brain” graphics put mind over (gray) matter

Ever wondered how your inferior frontal cortex feels about Fred Thompson?

Neither had I. Until yesterday, that is, when The New York Times went and put the “science” back in the “political science” of the campaign trail. “This Is Your Brain on Politics” summarizes a study conducted this summer by a team of cognitive scientists who used brain-mapping technology to examine undecided (read: emotionally neutral) voters’ reactions to candidates and campaign language. The researchers questioned twenty voters, ten men and ten women—who said they were open to choosing candidates from either party—about their political preferences. They then recorded those subjects’ brain activity, through MRIs, as the voters looked at photos and watched videos of candidates.

Among the team’s findings: the brain activity of the voters who claimed not to like Hillary Clinton revealed surprisingly positive feelings toward her. For them, video of Clinton provoked activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, “an emotional center of the brain that is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one.” Men responded favorably to photos of Rudy Giuliani, but those initial reactions deteriorated after watching him on video. (Women, interestingly, had the opposite reaction: photos of Giuliani brought negative brain activity, but video of the candidate raised their opinion of him.) Video of Fred Thompson giving a stump speech activated subjects’ superior temporal sulcus and inferior frontal cortex—areas involved in empathy—while those areas remained relatively inactive during a Giuliani speech.

Interesting stuff. And it’s refreshing to see a scientific study brought to the pages of a major newspaper in the words of its authors, rather than those of a press release. (“This Is Your Brain” has no byline, offering instead a description of the seven-member research team that conducted the study it summarizes.) And “This Is Your Brain” goes beyond words to put the “art” in “article”: the piece is illustrated with composite images of the study subjects’ brains responding to the candidates in question. It provides color-coded representations of the undecided voter’s brain reacting to Giuliani, Clinton, and other front-runners (a this-is-your-brain-on-Kucinich graphic, alas, seems not to have made the cut)—as well as that composite brain reacting to the written words “Republican,” “Democrat,” and “independent.” As a meta-graphic bonus, these biological images are complemented by decidedly synthetic ones that spell out more subjectively the emotion being shown activated in the brain. In Romney’s graphic box, for example, we get a black-and-white “man” icon pulling at his hair, legs akimbo, tie askew, indicating the “anxiety” Romney initially elicited in voters. In the “Democrat” graphic, that same “man” flashes a thumbs-up to indicate the “emotional connection and positive feelings” with which many of the study subjects’ brains reacted to seeing the word “Democrat.”

Some might say these graphics are simple to the point of simplistic—and more insulting to the intelligence than helpful to it—but potato, potahto. That the Times has gone to such pains to make a study about neurological functions—one that makes regular use of such soporific terms as “anterior cingulated cortex”—both accessible and engaging to its readers is, overall, admirable.

Unfortunately, though, that very effort at simplicity also gives way to inaccuracy: the article’s graphics—and, more precisely, the pithy captions that describe them—don’t always reflect the scientific findings they’re supposed to be illustrating. Here’s the article’s explanation of study subjects’ reaction to John Edwards, for example:

John Edwards has promise — and a problem. When looking at pictures of Mr. Edwards, subjects who had rated him low on the thermometer scale showed activity in the insula, an area associated with disgust and other negative feelings. This suggests that swing voters’ negative emotions toward Mr. Edwards can be quite powerful.

The good news for Mr. Edwards is that the swing voters who did not give him low ratings, when looking at still photos of him, showed significant activation in areas of the brain containing mirror neurons — cells that are activated when people feel empathy. And that suggests these voters feel some connection to him. So Mr. Edwards has a strong effect on swing voters — both those who like him and those who don’t.

In other words, the brain activity of voters who claimed not to like Edwards reflected that dislike. But the brain activity of voters who didn’t give him low marks reflected empathy for, and connection with, the candidate. Hence, “promise” as well as “problem”: reactions to Edwards were a mixed bag.

But here’s the summary of the brain-on-Edwards, according to the article’s graphic:

Subjects who had an unfavorable view of John Edwards responded to pictures of him with feelings of disgust, evidenced by increasing activity in the insula, a brain area associated with negative emotions.

Hmm. Where’s the stuff about empathy and connection? It’s missing entirely from the graphic’s caption. Which is a big deal, because these graphics function not merely to attract the eye, or to break up the gray of the page; they’re meant to convey the article’s content. (The piece’s layout reinforces that role: the brain-imaging graphics, in terms of both size (huge) and page placement (center), get bigger play than the article text itself.) But if readers look only at the graphic, they’ll come away associating Edwards with “disgust”—a deceptively skewed conclusion.

That’s not the only discrepancy. Mitt Romney’s summary, in the text of “This Is Your Brain,” reports that viewing still photos of the candidate elicited anxiety in voters’ brains—but also that “when the subjects saw him and heard his video, their anxiety died down.” The article’s Romney graphic, though, notes simply that “looking at photos of Mitt Romney led to activity in the amygdala, a brain area linked to anxiety” (and then punctuates that point with an amygdala-activated brain illustration and the aforementioned “anxious man” icon). The graphic mentions nothing about that initial anxiety being ameliorated through seeing and hearing Romney on video—the more politically salient fact here, given that voters are almost guaranteed to see the candidate in video form over the course of the campaign. Similarly, watching video of Barack Obama, the article reports, provoked “increased activity in some regions of the brain associated with positive feeling” among male subjects (though not so with women); the Obama graphic, however, notes only the subjects’ reactions to photos of him—and the fact that, when shown those pictures, voters “had little activity in areas of the brain associated with thought or feeling.” Again: hmm.

If an article purports to “reveal some voter impressions on which this election may well turn,” it needs to reflect those revelations at every turn—not just in its text, but in the entire package it presents to its readers. The brain-drainy graphics “This Is Your Brain” serves up serve as a useful reminder: graphics need to be able to stand independently from the articles they illustrate; they should complement an article, certainly, but never contradict it. There’s no gray area in that—even, and especially, when it comes to gray matter.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.