Earlier this month it was announced that British and US scientists had found they were able to predict how people would vote according to scans of their brains. At least, that is, according to the online journal PLOS One, and reported in the Daily Telegraph.
The human brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells, and each of these has multiple interconnections with adjacent nerve cells.
So the Telegraph - a paper that should never be suspected of unbiased reporting - boiled down the most complex structure in the known universe, the human brain, into a very brief report. It's worth a closer look.
First, the US experimental subjects generally seemed to use the more primitive, reactive areas of their brains - the fight or flight reaction - rather than the more recently evolved, reasoning layer of the cerebral cortex, when making political decisions.
This finding is similar to earlier research reported in the popular US journal Scientific American and, although the facts as reported might help to explain some oddities of the US, and British, political systems, we need to be careful about any conclusions, which should remain tentative for the present. After all, the reading of bumps on the head, phrenology, is now derided, but was for a time a very plausible practice.
Second, how the brain works - and how it doesn't - have become two of the most fertile areas for both psychological and neurological research, and they are generally regarded today in a scientific, materialist way.
This is very different from the idealist psycho-analytical theories that were such a feature of the 20th century, especially amongst the richer clients of fashionable doctors.
Lastly, our investigative powers have expanded in recent years, mostly due to modern surgical techniques, but we now also have superb non-invasive methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allow us to see how the brain functions in real time while it performs certain tasks.
Unfortunately, such scientific research is wide open to the interpretations of ruling ideologues of society, so we should regard these "digestions" as potentially highly suspect.
For instance, a decidedly iffy report in the Independent from 1996 cited genetic studies that "proved" the existence of a "working-class gene."
This gene supposedly explained "working-class accents, dropped aitches" and "a regression to unsophisticated tastes in wallpaper and soft furnishings."
Picked up by some who should have known better, a few journalists at the time extended the report from the "University of Southern Hampshire," and added that the same gene led to a taste for brown ale, the wearing of flat caps and speculated on the possible wish of prospective mothers to abort working-class foetuses.
Such caricatures are, of course, insulting, implying that working people have little to no analytical or deductive abilities, nor any sense of fashion or style.
For centuries ruling circles have asserted ideas of their own supremacy, bolstered by theories of genetic determinism, which also fit well with ideas of racial superiority.
Historian Richard Gott quotes a teacher from 1830s Venezuela, Simon Rodriguez, as writing that "the scholars of America have never revealed the fact that they owe their knowledge to the Indians and the blacks; for if these scholars had had to plough and sow and reap … they would not know so much."
But just as Rodriguez had a very sound idea of how scholars were able to appear so mentally superior to indigenous peoples, so back in Europe, one medical researcher was developing dramatic ideas of how the human brain functioned.
The effect of the fMRI, mentioned above, was imagined by Pavlov 70 years before it became a reality in the US.
As he describes it, "If the skull were transparent, and the active centres had the property of emitting light, then external observation would give us a picture of an illuminated patch of very complex form which gradually moved about, continually encroaching on some portions of the cortex and deserting others. This illuminated patch would correspond to the region of maximum excitation, the 'creative' portion of the hemispheres [of the brain] at the given moment."
Between Pavlov in the "old world" and Rodriguez in the "new" we can perhaps begin to see why one popular Latin American leader has said that "another world is possible."
Rodriguez, even before Marx, was briefly commenting on the effects of a world stratified by class and race and Pavlov, almost a century before the development of fMRI, visualised the minute electrical currents that we now know constitute "thinking" in the mammal brain.
More fundamentally, one of Pavlov's predecessors in tsarist Russia had had his materialist researches into brain function banned by the state, and extending Rodriguez's materialist, indeed dialectical, explanation of supposed racial differences is still fought against by today's US.
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