Is it possible to tell how a voter will cast their ballot from looking at a scan of their brain using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)? Will brain mapping provide clues as to how the election will go?

What actually goes on in your brain when you make a decision, or a mistake, or even kick back after work and down a cocktail or two? In order to shed some light on the mysteries of the inner workings of the human mind, scientists have been using new technology – fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) to see activity inside the brain when a person thinks about a certain thing – including decisions.

In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that they were able to detect patterns of brain activity about 10 seconds before the study subjects made a mistake in simple, mindless tasks.

According to a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked their test subjects to make a simple decision as to whether to push the button on the right or left side of the board. They found there was activity in parts of the brain as much as 10 seconds before the person made a conscious decision as to which button to push.

Researchers went inside the heads of 20 swing voters, 10 men and 10 women the spring before the 2008 general election. The subjects had not made a decision and were open to voting from either party. According to a published article in Nature Neuroscience, the object of the study was to see the brain activity that takes place during the decision-making process of selecting a candidate.

Researchers monitored the blood flowing through parts of the brains of volunteers throughout a four stage process: The subjects were given a pre-evaluation test where they answered candidate specific questions; They were then shown still photos of each candidate individually; after which they were shown a video of each giving a stump speech; followed by the photo of the candidate again to see if their reaction had changed.

What they found was that women were less prone to be party specific than men, at least in the 2008 election, taking more interest in individual candidates as opposed to party choices. Additional patterns emerged:

When hearing or seeing the words “Republican,” “Democrat,” or “Independent” they all showed some anxiety, and more activity in the amygdala. Men were especially active with the word “Republican.” All three labels also received some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum. With one exception, the men showed little response, positive or negative, when viewing “independent.”

Gov. Mitt Romney sparked the greatest amount of brain activity, especially among men. The amygdala of the brain, indicating voter anxiety, was most active when shown a still photo of him, but after hearing his speech and watching his video that anxiety dissipated.

Fred Thompson received more empathy, possibly because his characters in movies and television, as the President in one and as District Attorney in “Law and Order” made him visibly more credible. Activity in the superior temporal sulcus and inferior frontal cortex, both involving empathy, were extremely active for Mr. Thompson, while Mayor Giuliani produced relatively little reaction. This suggested that Thompson would have a somewhat greater advantage over Giuliani.

John Edwards had a mixed reaction. Those who rated him low on the scale showed activity in the insula area of the brain, relating to disgust and negative feelings. Those who rated him higher showed more activity in areas of the brain containing mirror neurons, meaning they felt empathy and could relate to him. His was either a strong and powerful like or dislike.

Barack Obama and John McCain both needed some work (at the time). At first glance at their photos neither evoked a strong positive or negative reaction. The males showed more interest in McCain, but lost interest after viewing his video. Women were unimpressed one way or the other. While Obama rated high during the pre-scan portion of the exercise, both men and women showed less brain activity when they looked at the pre-video still photos. The video of Obama showed more activity among men in some regions of the brain associated with feelings, but there was little effect on the women. This indicates the Mr. Obama had not yet created an impression on some swing voters.

Hillary Clinton received mixed emotions. Those who rated Mrs. Clinton unfavorably on their questionnaire were not entirely comfortable with that assessment. When they viewed her photo there was significant activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an emotional center that is active when someone is feeling compelled to make a decision one way or another. Those who had a favorable image of her originally showed little activity in this area. Men who initially had little interest in her, then saw her video reacted positively. Women reacted just the opposite – if they had a positive opinion at the beginning they were less interested after watching the video.

Both reacted just the opposite to Giuliani, if they liked him prior to the video they disliked him more after.

What was interesting about this study was that there are a wide range of emotions that are involved in making a decision, and different areas of the brain. One emotion sparks one are of the brain to charge while another emotion sparks yet another area of the brain. It also indicates that opinions can be changed, and if a candidate makes some changes in the way they present themselves they can swing votes – thus perception when presented with facts can make a difference in decisions.


About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



NPR – Peering into the Human Brain with fMRI Techniques:

NPR – Study Maps Activity of Swing Voters’ Brains:

New York Times: This Is Your Brain on Politics: