Thursday, March 11, 2004

Annoy Your Liberal Neighbors
Ann Coulter and the Serotonin Transporter
A Study Shows How and Why People Respond to Faces

 Pre-order for November! 
Ann Coulter Talking Action Figure 
Amuse your conservative friends and annoy your liberal neighbors with the brand new Ann Coulter Talking Action Figure. This incredibly lifelike action figure looks just like the beautiful Ann Coulter, and best of all . . . it sounds like Ann, too! This highly collectible doll comes in a display box with information highlighting Ann's unique contributions to America's political discourse. If you can't get enough Ann Coulter, you'll want to order the Ann Coulter Talking Action Figure today!

There really is a gap in understanding between conservatives and liberals, if conservatives think that liberals will be annoyed by this doll action figure.  I would bet that as many of these are purchased by liberals as by conservatives. 

Now, being of a psychologically-minded  sort, I noticed that I first typed the word "doll" when the company that markets this thing refers to it as an "action figure."  This brought to mind an early memory:

G.I. JOE Action Figure makes his debut as an 11-1/2 inch "doll" for boys with 21 moving parts. He is named G.I. JOE after the movie "The Story Of G.I. JOE." G.I. JOE becomes the first boy's "Action Figure" in the world.

I would have been six years old.  Like most kids at the time, I was unaware of the Viet Nam war, I knew that most of my older male relatives had been in World War II, and the military was being presented in a favorable light in the media.  I actually owned a GI Joe.  This seemed perfectly natural.  My sisters had dolls, and now there was a doll for boys.  Made sense.  People were starting to talk about gender equality, and equality, by definition, goes both ways.  Why not have dolls for boys?  What I remember from that time was: I3-D MRI rendering of a brain with fMRI activation of the amygdala highlighted in red. thought it was odd, that they did not call it a doll.  Then I realized that it was a marketing gimmick.  Girls play with dolls; boys play with action figures.  At the tender age of six, I suddenly realized that the world is full of people who use words to manipulate others. 

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, 1646-1716Being psychologically minded, I now pause to reflect on the fact that I started out writing about Ann Coulter, then ended up writing about people who use words to manipulate others.  According to the theory of psychological determinism, that would suggest that I have an emotional association between those two concepts: Ann Coulter ---> using words to manipulate.  The term, psychological determinism, usually is attributed to Sigmund Freud.  In Freudian theory, the idea is that one state of mind (a set of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors existing simultaneously at one point in time) leads directly to the next state of mind, and that there are understandable rules that govern how one state of mind leads to the next.  The concept  actually originated before Freud.  The phrase was used by Gottfried Leibniz, a philosopher who pondered the ancient question of Free Will  vs. Determinism

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939Before dismissing this as mere psychobabble, remember two things.  First, I always have a point to make at the end of the essay; Second, Freud himself stated that he thought all of his observations eventually would be found to have a neurological basis.  He was a neurologist at the start of his career.  He knew that he was constructing an abstract model of psychology, and that the state of medical technology at the time was not sufficiently sophisticated to enable determination of the biological correlates of his observations. 

In the 21st century, we have the technology.  Functional MRI is being used routinely to perform investigations of the sort that would have interested Freud.  In fact, there was a study done on the neurobiology of the emotional response to the viewing of faces.  The original report  appeared in the 19 July 2002 issue of Science (Ahmad Hariri and Daniel Weinberger, Science 297: 400-403 -- subscription required).  If you do not have subscriber access to Science, you can view the semi-technical rendition  at the NIMH website.

What is really interesting about the Hariri article is that they not only show that the amygdala is involved in processing the emotional response to faces, but they show that the intensity of this response is influenced by genetics.  The gene involved is the one that codes for a protein that occurs in certain nerves cells.  The protein, called the serotonin transporter,  is involved in the regulation of the amount of a chemical messenger -- serotonin -- that is present between adjacent  nerve cells.  The serotonin is what sends the message from one cell to another.  Thus, the amount of serotonin determines the strength of the message.  There are two versions of this gene in humans.  One version makes a lot of the protein.  The other version makes less.  Each person has two copies of the gene.  Thus, some people have two copies of the gene for more protein, others have two copies for the one that makes less, and some people have one copy of each. 

The study showed that people who make less of the serotonin transporter have greater activation of the amygdala that those make more, when they view a fearsome face.  This effect is seen only on the right-hand side of the brain, which is where facial recognition takes place.  The amygdala is known to regulate the process of emotional association.  That is, when a person sees something, and the view of the thing generates an emotional response, the amygdala regulates the strength of the response.  This demonstrates one of the biological substrates of psychological determinism.

Viewing Ann Coulter's face, my right amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree.