Asimov saw it coming: Picking a voter's brain

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Did you hear the one about the researchers who did brain scans of people watching political commercials? It's no joke: A team at UCLA is using MRI machines to study the brain's response to political images. Subjects lie down in scanners while campaign spots play on the inside of goggles, and computers map which parts of their brains are activated.

Early results confirm what many have always suspected - Democrats and Republicans have different kinds of brains. So far, for example, they've discovered that Democrats show more activity in the part of the brain that responds to danger.

Backers of this research are totally serious. A company started by two former Clinton-Gore strategists - Tom Freedman and William Knapp - is funding it and plans to publish the results in a medical journal.

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Using brain scans instead of focus groups will "help put a bit more science in political science," Mr. Freedman told The New York Times. I say, more like science fiction. Back in 1956, Isaac Asimov wrote "Franchise," a story about a future in which an electorate of one decides elections. Every four years, one voter is picked to be hooked up to a computer called "Multivac." After hours of questions and analysis, the computer uses the citizen's responses to determine election winners. Asimov's vision of the future isn't far from our reality. Will just one voter ever determine a presidential election? Just 527 in Florida settled the last one. And this year, we're told just 17 states are "in play" for their electoral votes.

Well, I'm no Multivac, but I predict all the market research, brain scans, and tea leaves in the world won't crack the mystery of what makes people vote. Americans are notoriously unpredictable, independent, and contradictory in the voting booth. Why should they act differently behind the one-way mirror of a focus group, hooked up to a computer, or in an MRI tube?

One commercial that has been screened in the MRI theater is the famous "Daisy" spot made for Lyndon Johnson, in which a girl is picking petals while the soundtrack counts down to a nuclear explosion and mushroom cloud. The scientists say that Democrats get just as agitated over those images as they do when they look at GOP ads using images of 9/11. They don't know if this is because Democrats are hard-wired to be more disturbed by the use of force, or if they're worried President Bush is going to use 9/11 to win.

The backers of this research claim they're not trying to build a Democratic smart bomb. They say they're exploring "a new frontier," not mining for partisan advantage.

I can't see this technology catching on. Unless the MRI industry adapts it as an extra feature to offer: "Would you like to watch a video during your scan today? Maybe see how your brain reacts to two hours of Donald Trump?"

Now that's a science fiction nightmare.

William S. Klein is a Democratic consultant.

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