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The Debates: Your Brain on Vitriol

A little neuroscience is a dangerous thing

A little neuroscience is a dangerous thing.

What follows is not based on research (and I truly welcome any of you that are neuroscientfically inclined to react, slice and dice or merely tweak what I say), but on observation and then taking neuropoetic license.

In my book, "Just Listen" Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, I spent some time on three neuroscience topics: mirror neurons, the triune brain and the amygdala hijack.

Mirror Neurons

In the late 1980's researchers in Italy discovered an area in macaque monkeys that were activated when monkeys observed other monkeys doing various things and then imitating them. As a result these neurons were originally referred to as "monkey see, monkey do" neurons. These neurons were later called mirror neurons, because they were activated when one monkey was mirroring the actions of another.

Later on, other researchers hypothesized and identified the presence of mirror neurons in humans. Subsequent research appeared to make an association between functioning mirror neurons and imitation, learning and empathy and between dysfunctional mirror neurons and autism or autistic spectrum disorders.

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In my book, "Just Listen," I hypothesized about the presence of a mirror neuron receptor deficit which I have since abbreviated to mirror neuron gap. By that I meant that when you feel that you are caring and conforming to the emotional needs of the others and that they are not caring or conforming to your emotional needs, a gap is created. The greater that gap, the greater the hunger to have it narrowed or closed by the process of caring and empathy from others. One of the reasons people cry when they feel cared about or empathized with is because when someone does that with you, the mirror neuron gap is eliminated. And in that moment, one feels less alone, less estranged and less disconnected and the relief one feels is expressed with tears.

This closing of the mirror neuron gap is also what makes us cry in tear jerker movies, because at those moments, what was seeming to be a large mirror neuron gap, suddenly becomes closed. Three of my favorite examples of this come from "tearjerker" scenes in the movies,

What does this have to do with the debates?

Each candidate will try to increase the mirror neuron gap between you and their opponent and decrease your mirror neuron gap with them. The greater the gap they create with regard to their opponent, the more repelled and offended you will feel by them. And the more they are able to close the mirror neuron gap with you, the more you will feel a bond with them. That bonding will also release an outpouring of the bonding hormone oxytocin which is present in larger amounts in women than men and underlies the bonding feelings women feel with their children.

Triune Brain

This is a model of the brain first described by American physician and neuroscientist, Paul Maclean. In his model he explained that our brain is really three brains composed of million year old mammalian emotional brain and a 245 million year old reptile "fight or flight" actional brain. When we are not under stress our three brains can work pretty well together, with our human rational brain often being able to evaluate any new situation and respond rationally instead of reacting emotionally.

The Amygdala Hijack

This is term coined by Daniel Goleman creator of field of Emotional Intelligence. The amgdala is a part of our mammalian emotional brain. Some have referred to as the emotional sentinel. In essence when we are under manageable stress we are able to take input into our brain and direct it to our rational human brain, specifically our prefrontal cortex and we are able to stay on course with our near term and longer term goals. However when stress becomes unmanageable and crosses over into distress, our amygdala hijacks us away from the rational part of our brain and we react according to how we have be wired by prior experiences.

In summary, what Obama and Romney will be trying to do is create a mirror neuron gap regarding their opponents and then trigger an amygdala hijack so that we don't respond rationally. Furthermore if they can then connect with us and narrow our mirror neuron gap with respect to them, they are hoping we will then have an outpouring of oxytocin and bond/connect with them and then have that expressed in the voting booth in November.

Mark Goulston, MD, is the author of the new bestselling book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.

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