Neuropolitics: Campaign advice for Hillary Clinton and Fred Thompson

Bill Clinton Neurological recognition

The Clinton Neurons, Quian Quiroga et al., “Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain,” Nature 435: 1102-1107 (2005)

Neurodemocracy, you gotta love it. Branding, celebrity and politics — all evoke neurological responses in primitive brain areas. How can the candidates best position themselves to have the best neurological response in swing voters?

I have some advice. Free!

First, the lead up – a New York Times Op-Ed piece :

This Is Your Brain on Politics

Published: November 11, 2007

Researchers from the fields of neuroscience and public policy watched the brains of a group of swing voters as they responded to the leading 2008 presidential candidates. Here are the results.


Not surprisingly, candidates evoked emotional responses in primitive brain regions. The article shows graphics of brain scans — to be sure, a skewed sample of only 20 self-identified swing voters, from Los Angeles – west! Los Angeles, no less. The scans were taken before and during videos of campaign stumping.

Now, I know this article is not well received, (see here, and here, for example). Nevermind all that, I say. Let the ’08 neuroelection begin!

Now, I thought two of the candidates, Hillary Clinton and Fred Thompson, had interesting neuromarketing issues:

For Mrs. Clinton, how is she to overcome a negative neurological response in swing voters?

For Mr. Thompson, how is he not to blow his Reagan-esque neurological underpinnings when his personal life is clearly the not-Reagan?

(I have no interest in the outcome, and I won’t express my political views here…)

Mrs. Clinton needs to add additional political celebrity “brands” and remake herself into the Clinton “Team” — this would get a bunch of neurons firing in voters, rather than just the “Hillary” neuron, which may be a negative.

Mr. Thompson has done a pretty good job hijacking the Ronald Reagan neuron — but he needs to turn his wife into Nancy when the personal-life high beams go on.

Say what?

People neurologically respond to known brands – including celebrity. Biologically, one hypothesis is that of the “grandmother” cells — cells that neurologically embody the concept “grandmother” for example. Or “Jennifer Aniston” or “Pamela Anderson” or “Bill Clinton”. A single neuron, as improbable as that seems, holds the emotional response to the gestalt of the image and all that means to the individual.

But this may be the case. A 2005 Nature paper reports tests done on 8 individuals with incurable epilepsy. As part of their treatment, they had a brain-cell monitor implanted, which would monitor brain cell firing. This provided the opportunity to measure brain cell firing in response to images — researchers showed the patients one-second snapshots of celebrities, animals, objects and landmarks or buildings.

The results were stunning. Each person had a response to celebrity — and this could be quantified down to the neuron. One individual had a medial temporal lobe neuron responding selectively to images of Bill Clinton:

. . .Stimuli were different pictures of individuals, animals, objects and landmark buildings presented for 1 s in pseudorandom order, six times each. An unpublished observation in our previous recordings was the sometimes surprising degree of invariance inherent in the neuron’s (that is, unit’s) firing behaviour. For example, in one case, a unit responded only to three completely different images of the ex-president Bill Clinton.

“Bill Clinton” neuron firing is graphically illustrated (scroll up) for one of the images — this individual had the same neuron firing for three different images.

This is not just face recognition. Here are the graphs showing a “Pamela Anderson” neuron in a different individual — responsive to the gestalt of Ms. Anderson, not just a particular image. Notice the neurons respond to her name — make no mistake, this is not just face-recognition:

Pamela Anderson neuron

This is what Mrs. Clinton must face – no, not competition from Pamela Anderson.

More after the jump

Is there is a “Hillary Clinton” neuron in swing voters? Probably — she has been in the public eye for almost a generation now. But the “Hillary” neuron in swing voters probably evokes a very mixed emotional response.

If you believe the NYT , swing voters who were initially biased against Mrs. Clinton showed activity in the brain areas for “conflicting emotions” :

NYT, “This is your brain on politics”, Clinton conflict

What to do?

An image make-over? Mrs. Clinton may be misfiring: As pointed out, she may be trying to be more womanly or identifying with regular Jane Doe women who vacuum and bake cookies — of course, this will fall flat. Neurons can change, but biologically, it just takes time for an extreme makeover. Image-changing is probably too little, too late.

How about re-defining “Hillary” as “the Hillary Team.” That’s the ticket. Have a whole bunch of “grandmother” cells fire at once in those on-the-fence voters. Overwhelm any negative “Hillary” neuronal responses. “Team Hillary.”

Draft Al Gore to be Secretary of the Interior — for example. Let Mr. Clinton be your Secretary of State — we know that people have neurons that respond to him, rogue that he is, he gets the job done. Martha Stewart probably evokes a neuronal response in women — and Mrs. Clinton needs a “wife”. Ms. Stewart could be the “first- homemaker- who-does-everything beautifully” — a Letitia Baldrige type position. Overwhelm swing voter “grandmother” neurons. (A “Pamela Anderson” cabinet spot would probably do the trick.) ;-)

Now. Fred Thompson. Ronald Reagan F-r-e-d-r-o-n-a-l-d. Thompreagan. Fred Reagan. Fronald Treagan. There, are the Fred Thompson neurons sufficiently hijacking the Ronald Reagan ones yet?

Fred Thompson and Ronald Reagan Marketing

Fred Thompson has Peggy Noonan’s interest – the former Reagan speech writer. (I enjoy Ms. Noonan’s writings — I find myself nodding in agreement until I snap out of it. She must be a closet neuropsychologist.)

Look at the brain illustration above — the empathy part of the brain is lighting up in swing voters (according to the NYT op-ed piece, discredited soundly by science-types who rely on statistically significant results, the party poopers).

How does he do that? Mr. Thompson seems to be doing fine on his free ride on the Ronald Reagan neuron.

But, the big talk is the wife: Young, good looking, and now a second family.

Not Reagan-esque for a gray guy with gravity and judgment. Will this blow him out of the Reagan neuron? Maybe. Ronald Reagan would never be a man-about-town. Mr. Thompson (I think) seems to be taking the approach of “that’s who I am and I haven’t done anything wrong.” That’s fine, and legitimate, but it won’t earn him those Ronald Reagan “grandmother” neurons.

But wait. She’s wearing red. He calls her “Mommy.” She’s looking at White House china patterns. . . . she’s. . . Nancy. ;)

Ah neurodemocracy.

(Abstract of the 2005 nature paper after the jump)

But wait: Here’s Edgar Winter doing “Free Ride” via Youtube

Nature 435, 1102-1107 (23 June 2005) doi:10.1038/nature03687; Received 1 December 2004; Accepted 3 February 2005Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain

R. Quian Quiroga1,2,5, L. Reddy1, G. Kreiman3, C. Koch1 & I. Fried2,4


  1. Computation and Neural Systems, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA
  2. Division of Neurosurgery and Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), California 90095, USA
  3. Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142, USA
  4. Functional Neurosurgery Unit, Tel-Aviv Medical Center and Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv 69978, Israel
  5. †Present address: Department of Engineering, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK

Correspondence to: R. Quian Quiroga1,2,5 Correspondence and request for materials should be addressed to R.Q.Q. (Email:

It takes a fraction of a second to recognize a person or an object even when seen under strikingly different conditions. How such a robust, high-level representation is achieved by neurons in the human brain is still unclear1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. In monkeys, neurons in the upper stages of the ventral visual pathway respond to complex images such as faces and objects and show some degree of invariance to metric properties such as the stimulus size, position and viewing angle2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. We have previously shown that neurons in the human medial temporal lobe (MTL) fire selectively to images of faces, animals, objects or scenes13, 14. Here we report on a remarkable subset of MTL neurons that are selectively activated by strikingly different pictures of given individuals, landmarks or objects and in some cases even by letter strings with their names. These results suggest an invariant, sparse and explicit code, which might be important in the transformation of complex visual percepts into long-term and more abstract memories.