An election official hands back a marked ballot to voter so she can put it in the ballot box, in the federal election in May 2011.

An election official hands back a marked ballot to voter so she can put it in the ballot box, in the federal election in May 2011.
Photo Credit: CP / Chris Young

Voting and your brain: research from McGill shows what’s involved

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McGill University is the scene of joint research into the workings of the brain involved in a decision such as voting.  Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship came together in a multi-disciplinary approach to conduct experiments into the processes involved in deciding on a candidate.

They found that the lateral orbitofrontal cortex must be working well for a voter to be able to combine various sources of information to formulate the decision.

“One way of understanding how the brain works is to see how it doesn’t work when it’s damaged in particular ways.”

Neurologist, Dr. Lesley Fellows, researcher and lead author of the paper in the June 3rd, issue of Journal of Neuroscience, explained the quest: “Recent research suggests that several areas in the brain carry information about the value of decision options, but it is not clear yet how these areas work together when we make a choice.”

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“The frontal lobes in general are thought to be important in complex behaviours, but the orbital frontal cortex in particular, has been implicated in decision making and other emotional types of processes as well as in certain kinds of social behaviour.”

To investigate what’s happening in the orbital frontal cortex, the researchers used an election paradigm, They took real-life American candidates who ran in an election ten years ago, who were unknown to the people participating in the study.  All the participants had to go on, to make the decision. were head and shoulder photographs.

They asked the participants to rate the candidates on attractiveness and perceived competence.  Healthy people and people with frontal lobe damage did use both of these elements in making their choice, but those with lateral orbitofrontal cortex damage, while they could rate the competence, did not use this aspect in making their decision, they decided based on appearance only.

“We think this region becomes important when you need to pull multiple lines of information to make a global judgement and that’s the sort of thing that even simple  decisions, like voting based on the picture of a candidate requires and it was specifically disrupted after this kind of brain damage.” Dr. Fellows and her concluded.

“Because a lot of the research so far on this part of the brain has focused on economic choices I think it’s been an unduly narrow perspective on that part of the brain, I actually think it’s likely that the frontal lobes in general and the orbital frontal cortex in particular are particularly important for social behaviours and social decisions so I’m optimistic that working further with political scientists will help us better define and provide a more comprehensive framework for thinking about what goes wrong after damage to that general area.”

Dr. Fellows explains that it is a part of the brain “that’s only been under active study for maybe less than 20 years, and this perspective from decision making is quite new.”

Dr. Fellows says these findings are an important step in the ongoing research into the functions of the differing regions of the brain. She says she tells patients taking part, that while they may not be able to help them right now, their participation, will eventually lead doctors to be able to better diagnose what is going on in the brain in the event of injury or stroke, and possibly provide better intervention or support or rehabilitation programs.

 

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