10/07/2013 12:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Inside Boehner's Brain: A Neuroscience Perspective

Many people, I've heard talk, wonder what's going on inside Republican speaker John Boehner's brain. For cognitive neuroscientists, Boehner's brain is a case study. At the same time, others are frustrated with Democrat Harry Reid. The Senate Majority leader needs to take a tip from our founding fathers. Many of the intellectual giants who founded our democracy were both statesmen and scientists, and they applied the latest in scientific knowledge of their day to advantage in governing. The acoustics of the House of Representatives, now Statuary Hall, allowed John Quincy Adams and his comrades to eavesdrop on other members of congress conversing in whispers on the opposite side of the parabolic-shaped room. Senator Reid, in stark contrast, is still applying ancient techniques used when senators wore togas -- reason and argument -- and we all know how badly that turned out.

The search for a path to compromise can be found in the latest research on the neurobiological basis of social behavior. Consider this new finding just published in the journal Brain Research. Oxytocin, a peptide produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and known to cement the strong bond between mother and child at birth, has been found to promote compromise in rivaling groups! This new research suggests that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi could single-handedly end the Washington deadlock by spritzing a bit of oxytocin in her perfume and wafting it throughout the halls of congress. One can only imagine the loving effect this hormone would have on Senate Republican Ted Cruz, suddenly overwhelmed with an irresistible urge to bond with his colleagues, fawning for a cozy embrace like a babe cuddling in its mother's arms. And it is so simple! No stealthy spiking the opponent's coffee (or third martini at lunch) would be required, oxytocin works when it is inhaled through the nasal passages as an odorless vapor.

Research shows that oxytocin stimulates empathy, an emotion that does not seem to thrive insight the Washington beltway. Functional brain imaging shows the inferior frontal gyrus of the cerebral cortex revving up in women hearing a crying infant when exposed to intranasal oxytocin, and fathers given oxytocin become less hostile. The hormone promotes benevolence, generosity, empathy, and it breaks down clans among animals. When given oxytocin rather than a placebo, humans engage more in self-sacrifice for the good of the group.

Interestingly, this new study finds that oxytocin does not make a person blindly loving toward everyone -- in competitive situations the positive effects of oxytocin are generated only within one's perceived in-group. Thus, this hormone increases the cohesiveness and social conformity within groups. Keeping this in mind, Pelosi need only walk among her Republican colleagues exuding the miracle compound to help that shattered political party meld with its Tea Party fringe and work together as one. "We conclude that oxytocin sensitizes humans to the group membership of their interaction partner, rendering them relatively more benevolent and less competitive towards those seen as belonging to their own group," the researchers conclude. Taken together, it stands to reason that oxytocin is just the prescription needed today in congress.

But back to Boehner's brain. Clearly the man is conflicted. Torn from limb to limb by competing factions and struggling to make monumental decisions as he struggles to broker compromise among factions holding incompatible ideals of what a government of, by, and for the people is -- or should be. Here again the latest research in neuroscience shows us what is going on in the embattled Speaker's brain at this minute.

In the past only philosophers or psychiatrists could speculate on how the human brain grapples with conflicting cognitive processes and maintains of self-control, but today functional brain imaging reveals the unconscious process by which the brain resolves internal conflicts as clearly as a real-time traffic report on Google Maps. A new study shows that mental conflict arising from sustaining incompatible intentions in the mind is consistently related to increased neural activity in the left post-central gyrus of the cerebral cortex. This bit of gray matter must be smoking in the Speaker's brain.

Studies of the neuroscience of human cooperation show that people are willing to incur personal costs to punish others who violate what they perceive as social norms. Using a combination of behavioral, pharmacological and neuroimaging techniques, researchers reported this year in the Journal of Neuroscience that manipulating the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain alters costly punishment decisions, (shutting down the government?) by modulating responses to fairness and retaliation in a part of the brain called the striatum. Serotonin enhances fairness; inhibits retaliation, lowers the threshold for reactive aggression, and facilitates the harmonious social interactions and promotes cooperative social exchange by modulating the computation of social value, the authors conclude in their paper.

Another study published in the October 4, 2013 edition of the journal Science shows a harmless way to manipulate the newly discovered brain circuits that make us follow social norms -- transcranial stimulation applied to activate circuits in the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC). A simple electrode stitched into the brim of a Washington Wizard's baseball cap would do the trick. Care need be taken to ensure that the polarity is hooked up correctly, because a positive voltage stimulates the rLPFC, promoting generosity and compliance with social norms, but a negative voltage would have exactly the opposite effect.

Finally, there's the issue of another rather well-known hormone: testosterone. A new paper shows that, in addition to all the other things this hormone is famous and infamous for doing to the brain and body, testosterone administration modulates moral judgments involving the interplay of emotions and social interactions. Now there is no hard evidence that this new finding can be applied to any of the male members of congress, but it is clear that most of them are rather senior and thus might be inclined to seek some pharmacological assistance for, well, I'm just saying it is a possibility to consider. What's interesting from this study is that the effect of testosterone on making moral judgments can be gleaned from a handshake. That's because the relative ratio of the length second to fourth digits of the hand report rather precisely how much testosterone the person was exposed to as a fetus in the womb -- the so-called 2D:4D ratio. This measure of testosterone exposure in the uterus works for both males and females. The study finds that people who showed an increase in utilitarian judgments following testosterone administration have a significantly higher 2D:4D ratio, while subjects whose judgments were more related to duty, obligation, or rules, had a lower 2D:4D ratio. "Sex steroids play a crucial role of the activational effects of hormones on moral reasoning later in life," the researchers conclude.

So watch the situation in Washington closely. Let's see if Pelosi applies more than the usual perfume and saunters through the Republican ranks with a sly smile on her face. Look for the Speaker to be donning a baseball cap and cracking a pleasantly complacent smile.
As the statesmen all grasp each other's hands in the ubiquitous handshakes, note if they cast their eyes down to gauge the length of their partner's second and fourth finger. Meanwhile, as one of the many furloughed government scientists whose research has collapsed under the present impasse, some of it to never recover, I'll keep looking for creative ways to apply my knowledge of neuroscience. Humor helps, but the reality of what is happening is tragic.

Crockett, M.J. et al., (2013) Serotonin modulates striatal responses to fairness and retaliation in humans. J. Neurosci. 33: 3505-13.

Fields, R.D. (2013) Brain stimulation can control compliance with social norms. Scientific American online.

Fields, R.D. (2013) Neural circuits of fair play discovered in the human brain.

Fields, R.D. (2013) How to measure propensity for aggression with a 6-inch ruler. Psychology Today.

Gray, J.R., et al., (2013) Neural correlates of the essence of conscious conflict: fMRI of sustaining incompatible intentions. Exp. Brain Res. 229: 453-65.

Montoya, E.R. et al., (2013) Testosterone administration modulates moral judgments depending on second-to-fourth digit ratio. Psychoneuroendocrinology 38, 1362-69.

Ruff, C.C. et al., (2013) Changing social norm compliance with noninvasive brain stimulation. Science 10.1126/science.1241399 in advance of print.

Ten Velden, F.S., et al., (2013) Oxytocin differentially modulates compromise and competitive approach but not withdrawal to antagonists from own vs. rivaling other groups. Brain Research online in advance of print.