This paper from Chawke and Kanai reports unexpected effects on subjects’ political views, brought about by stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). It seems to make people more conservative.
The research set out to build on earlier studies. Those seemed to suggest that the DLPFC had a role in flagging up conflicts; noting for us where the evidence was suggesting our views might need to be changed. Generally people stick to a particular outlook (the researchers suggest that avoidance of cognitive dissonance and similar stresses is one reason) but every now and then a piece of evidence comes along that suggest we really have to do a little bit of reshaping, and the DLPFC helps with that unwelcome process.
If that theory is right. then gingering up the DLPFC ought to make people readier to change their existing views. To test this, the authors set up arrangements to deliver random trans-cranial noise stimulation bilaterally to the relevant areas. They tested subjects’ political views beforehand; showed them a party political broadcast, and then checked to see whether the subjects’ views had in fact changed.
This was at Sussex, so the political framework was a British one of Labour versus Conservative. The expectation was that stimulating the DLPFC would make the subjects more receptive to persuasion and so more inclined to adjust their views slightly in response to what they were seeing; so Labour-inclined subjects would move to the right while conservative-inclined ones moved to the left.
Briefly, that isn’t what happened: instead there was a small but significant general shift to the right. Why could that be? To be honest it’s impossible to say, but hypothetically we might suppose that the DLPFC is not, after all, responsible for helping us change our view in the fare of contrary evidence, but simply a sceptical or disbelieving module that allows us to doubt or discard political opinions. Arguably – and I hope I’m not venturing into controversial territory – right wing views tend to correspond with general doubt about political projects and a feeling that things are best left alone; we could say that the fewer politics you have the more you tend to be on the right?
Whether that’s true or not it seems alarming that stimulating the brain directly with random noise can affect your political views; it suggests an unscrupulous government could change the result of an election by irradiating the poling stations.
What did it feel like for the subjects? Nothing, it seems; the experimenters were careful to ensure that control subjects got the same kind of experience although their DLPFC was left alone. Subjects were apparently unaware of any change in their views (and we’re only talking shifts on a small scale, not Damascene conversions to the opposite party).
Perhaps in the end it’s not quite as alarming as it seems. Suppose we played our subjects bursts of ordinary random acoustic noise? That would be rather irritating; it might make them overall a little angrier and less patient – might that not also have a small temporary effect on their voting pattern…?