There is much dispute as to whether there is a specific brain area responsible for how people perceive powerful figures in politics and other domains of life. In a seminal paper Hilaria et al. (2012) have used a series of novel techniques to identify the precise neural correlates of political influence. The authors firstly examined neural activation using an fMRI task whereby participants were exposed to leading political figures vs. non-political control figures. They selected a set of voxels which were activated when a popular political figure was displayed. Following this they used the same data to produce a correlation within that subset of voxels. One peak voxel (out of 500,000 studied) was strongly related to perceptions of political figures (r = .84). This area was located in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and has previously been shown to correlate strongly (r = .88) with distress following social rejection (Eisenberger et al., 2003).
This new study suggests that the ACC is involved not only in perceptions of social inclusion but also is activated by exposure to leaders that symbolize the integrity of the social group. In a follow-up study the authors show that transcranial magnetic stimulation of the ACC can in fact invoke neural simulations of political figures. One participant, shown here, was found to perceive a leading Irish political figure when the ACC was activated experimentally. This study demonstrates that key tools of neuroscience such as fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation can be combined with independence violating statistical methods to identify remarkable relationships that have previously lain undiscovered.
Hilaria et al. (2012). ACC voxel causes political perceptions. Science.