You knew we couldn’t pass up this one. This morning, The New York Times brings us a story from the laboratory of neuroscientists at UCLA who are subjecting voters to two unpleasant experiences simultaneously: undergoing a Magnetic Resonance Image brain scan while being forced to watch political commercials.

Voters are outfitted with goggles, then shoved into MRI tubes, where they watch various campaign ads played on the inside of said goggles. We are introduced to a Democratic voter, one John Graham, who agreed to watch controversial 9/11 images from a Bush campaign commercial. Researchers found that the ads engaged one particular section of Mr. Graham’s brain, whereas it engaged another section entirely of Republican brains.

Other findings of the experiment: Democrats seem to be more alarmed by the use of force than Republicans. And voters of both persuasions react to their favored candidate with the emotional, reflexive part of the brain, while they react to the candidate they oppose with the rational, cognitive area of the brain (which might explain why so many of us are more articulate in trashing a candidate we disdain than we are at defending someone we like).

All this, of course, raises the spooky specter of sophisticated political operatives producing ads that have been proven by brain scan research to set off mass emotional reactions. Or of drone-like voters in the year 2044 filing into MRI clinics instead of polling booths on election day. (The lede of the story refers to “political consultants discreetly observ[ing]” the MRIs from another room.)

But there is one caveat, and it’s a big one. The researchers so far have tested only 11 subjects. In the world of statistics, that’s not much more valid than a sample of three.

Steve Lovelady

Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.