As we all know by now, Barack Obama either did or did not spend a few moments on July 9, 2009 admiring the rear end of a colleague at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy.
The photo documenting the faux pas made the internet rounds thanks largely to Matt Drudge, and in due course got into the tabloids, such as the New York Post, which dubbed it “Tail to the Chief.” The international press then took it upon itself to identify the young woman by name and age (she was 16), at which point someone sought out her devoutly Christian family, which predictably expressed outrage that world leaders weren’t appreciating for her commitment to public service. As usual, the American press turned the event into a sporting event complete with slow-motion replays in a predictable effort to either convict or exculpate Obama in the court of public opinion.
From the standpoint of the neuroself what we want to know is, neurally, what was going on here (though to our eyes he seems to have merely been thoughtfully watching the step of the woman behind him). How would a Presidential brainstem convert a wiggling rear into an eye movement and a head turn? The question, we think, hits the neuroself at three levels.
First, it’s a question for what what Panksepp calls the “core self” – those lower brainstem regions, shared with all mammals, that pay attention to reproductive and other visual rewards. Here the major culprit – at least the region where the buck stops, if not where it started, is the superior colliculus (SC). This is a region common to both humans and animals far less complex than the president – as wikipedia puts it in a nice summary article, from hagfish on up – that represents the integration of sensory information about a single object, and then automatically directs eye movements to the rewarding object – in this case, perhaps, what Matt Drudge suspected. Now of course if this were all automatic, who could blame the President? However higher cortical regions, particularly prefrontal cortex (PFC) and more specifically the frontal eye fields (FEF), which allow people to consciously control their behavior, have what is called ‘top down’ control over the superior colliculus, allowing us to suppress its automatic tracking of high value targets. Thus in a sense when husbands and wives argue over whether or not the husband was or was not checking out another woman, and if on questioning guilt is admitted the argument progresses to whether or not he should be expected to suppress his checking out reflex, what they are really arguing over is where the buck stops – the superior colliculus or the frontal eye fields? The man says the SC, the woman says the FEF. They just don’t use that language.
Second, it’s a question for the prefrontal cortex, or what Panksepp calls the “cognitive self”, and why like a lapsed Chief Executive it failed to override the brainstem’s reflexive behavior?
Third, and most interestingly, it’s a question for something that exists at the level of function, not structure. What does this whole thing tell us about Obama as a whole person – which is to say, his whole neuroself?
There’s a provocative coda to this tempest in a teacup that brings us squarely into the realm of neuropsychoanalysis – a realm that that neuroscience can’t explain or predict, but which hints at the depths of his neuroself. The next day – after the media firestorm had no doubt made it to Obama’s morning briefing (just how did the junior staffer phrase him or herself, one wonders) Obama did this on his way into Air Force One and out of the country:
Now of course we’d need to speak to Obama to find out what this gesture meant to him. And obviously this will never happen. Must we therefore accept complete ignorance of its meaning or, alternately, engage in pure psychological speculation? No. We can frame the questions we would ask him – the differential diagnosis, if you will. Was the position of the hand – not quite on his wife’s rear end, but not quite on her back proper – a deliberate attempt to transition viewers’ thinking from the sexual to the non-sexual, from the extra-marital to the marital? Was it meant to send a message to Michelle about her rightful place? Was it meant to reassure himself that his sexual priorities were in the right place? Or was it, perhaps like his momentarily roving eye, merely a reflexive, habitual gesture of the body, and nothing more?
– Peter Freed, MD
Ursino et al. Multisensory integration in the superior colliculus: a neural network model. Journal of computational neuroscience (2009) vol. 26 (1) pp. 55-73
Panksepp and Northoff. The trans-species core SELF: the emergence of active cultural and neuro-ecological agents through self-related processing within subcortical-cortical midline networks. Consciousness and cognition (2009) vol. 18 (1) pp. 193-215
Shipp. The brain circuitry of attention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2004) vol. 8 (5) pp. 223-30