Obama’s Anterior Cingulate


This photograph, of President Obama watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, has been making the rounds lately.  It has been reassuring, for some, to know that the man does worry, at least occasionally.

Hillary, meanwhile, looks like she’s just witnessed a faux pas (do crashed stealth helicopters count?); General Webb looks like the proverbial “guy from IT,” albeit on Halloween.  Come to think of it, my IT guy actually dressed up as General Webb for Halloween –  unless, of course, he’s liveblogging the event with Osama’s neighbor in Pakistan.  Gates looks as worried as Gates ever looks, which is to say, pissed.  And Biden looks like he just woke up from the nap he started a few weeks ago during an Obama speech.  Ah, Biden being Biden.  He is the Manny Rodriguez of Democratic politics, no?

But of all the faces in the room, it was Obama’s that has meant the most to Americans.  It’s not just that by green-lighting the release of a photo in which he’s sitting lower down and farther from the camera than anyone else he has proven himself to be the opposite of Bush: utterly unconcerned that he might be perceived as the smallest guy in the room. It’s not just that by wearing an insignia-free fleece and no tie he might as well be some middle class dude out shopping at Home Depot, which is what most of us were actually doing that Sunday, one way or another. It’s not just that in appearing completely uninterested in the traditional trappings of power he has been caught reproducing, in the privacy of his own house, the same content-over-form swagger that makes America’s youngest generation of world-changers – the Zuckerbergs, the Dorseys, the Pages and Brins – opt for t-shirts and jeans.

No, it’s his face.  It conveys exactly the sort of grim determination, courage, and concern that that we have all felt on our own faces while watching our favorite sports begin the play that will decide the championship game.

In a sense that’s what worked about the photo.  Obama could have been in any living room in America on any given Sunday.  All that was missing was the chips and dip.  We’ve all sat around with our friends, just like him, and we’ve all gazed up at the television, just like him.  And we’ve all held our breaths as our team began its final play for all the marbles, just like him.  And so we all knew – the moment we saw the picture – what was on that screen.  It was Jordan going up for a jumper with a second left, Flutie dropping back for that Hail Mary pass, Gibson hobbling up to the plate. Except for him it was the SEALs. They had lost their chopper and still gone flooding into that house, far from home, in the midnight dark, to find their mark and take their shot.  To take it not only for the CIA and Pentagon and Navy, but for all of us and, especially, the dead.

Once we saw it we realized what we had been doing around our televisions all these years.  We hadn’t just been rooting for one team or another.  We had been practicing a myth in which we are just a group of people purchased on the edge of wilderness, in a town so personal and small we all have names. That’s what that picture did.  Those Navy SEALs – there were just twenty of them on that team, our team, and we could count them – and the people watching them, Joe and Hillary and Bob, their handlers who now could do nothing else but sit back and watch, we knew their names.

Our President – like the Mayor of some small town – didn’t flatter us with machismo.  He sat hunched over and grimacing with passionate, ferocious hope.  In this he told us something true.  Letting a whole country’s whole history boil down to twenty guys in a broken helicopter, where the small things – the things that don’t show up in macroeconomic models, ever – make all the difference isn’t something that happens once a lifetime. Putting your fate in someone else’s hands isn’t  something that happens once a decade or once a week.

It is what happens all the time.

It is, in fact, the only thing that ever happens.  We are on a team, and we are in the bleachers too, and this is our town, and what happens here, today, between us, matters.  Obama took being a fan to a whole new level – to the level where it belonged. He took it to the level of myth: the myth of sport, and then the myth of war, and then the myth of justice.  And then he took it down again, all the way down, across Afganistan, across the sea, all the way across the lonely ocean to our shores, and made it ours again.   He made us the only myth we’ve ever had – the myth of us.  The myth of America.

And it was his face that did it.

As it turned out, there were two winning shots that day.  First the bullet but then, politically, this photograph.  They were the icing on the cake of Obama’s recently released long-form birth certificate.  Together they were the tipping point for all those who still weren’t sure about the guy; even the Tea Partiers finally crossed over.   I heard someone who does textual analysis note that suddenly they were calling “Obama” “President Obama” for the first time ever.  The birth certificate was the law, the photo was its spirit.  Now everybody knew: he’s rooting for our team.  He really wants us to win.   He’s wearing our colors.  He’s one of us.

His poll numbers popped.

But all of this is so much psychobabble.  The goal of the neuroself framework is to use neuroscience to go deeper than old-school folk psychology.  And the place that this picture takes us is smack-dab into the middle of the Neuroself philosophy, which is that the individual human being doesn’t have a self.  He has multiple selves.  These multiple selves sometimes take turns controlling our brains, but sometimes they act independently and in concert simultaneously – not unlike a team of Navy SEALs.

Because what we’re seeing on Obama’s face is the activity of a self deep inside his brain that governs involuntary motor behavior produced by a part of his brain inaccessible to conscious control.  It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex.

And yes, moving facial muscles counts as motor behavior; so does talking and blinking and even focusing your eyes.  But ultimately it is not the part of the brain – the motor cortex – that many students and other readers will have learned is where control of the body originates.   That motor strip in the middle, top part of the brain is for voluntary motor action.  It’s what is “thinking” when you are learning how to shoot a free throw, and consciously deciding what to do with your wrist.   It’s also the part that gives you a forced, fake smile when someone says “cheese” at a family gathering, ten minutes after the last fight over how to cook turkey and five minutes before your cousin leaves early claiming fatigue.  Or a reactivation of her PTSD.   No, these signals are coming, ultimately, from a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which in a very general way is charged with conflict-monitoring.  And this part of the brain has tiny nuclei of motor neurons that pump out information about what you are “really” thinking to your face and voice, via some other regions we’ll get to in later posts.  This is the part of your brain that gives “tells” when you play poker.  This is the part of your brain that makes your voice squeak when you are giving a toast at your best friend’s wedding (yes, that also takes motor control – your larynx uses a muscle to determine tone).  This is the part of your brain that gives a flash of arousal to that girl you’ve been trying to keep your cool with – and makes her wonder, afterwards, if maybe you have a crush on you.  And it’s the part of your brain that makes you cry.  There’s more to all these behaviors than the anterior cingulate, and more to the anterior cingulate than this, but in a nutshell the ACC – as it’s called in neuroscience – controls “the part of you” that expresses itself despite your best (or merely your conscious) intentions.

This is yet another example of our society knowing way more about neuroscience than we realize.  The reason we trust “tells” is because they give us information about a person’s “true” feelings.  They reflect neural processing that can’t be faked, because it can’t be generated voluntarily – unless you are a really, really good actor, and even then you probably have to use the “method” to get there.  And the method is pretty darn close to being real.  And it is this unfakeable aspect that makes people feel they finally know who you “really” are.

This is why the photo of Obama was so much more valuable than a verbal policy statements, which are under voluntary motor control.   You might say that if pictures are worth a thousand words, then in neuroscience facial contractions – which reflect ACC activity – are worth a thousand slippery tongues.  And so Obama did with this involuntary face what his policy statements never could.  He gave the world a readout of the neural activity deep inside his brain.  And that, it seems, has made all the difference to some place deep inside the brains of people who like tea.

For detail-junkies, in a post-in-progress we’ll trace the neural pathways from ACC to periaqueductal grey to the facial nerve, and get to know involuntary neuroselves a bit better. 

2 thoughts on “Obama’s Anterior Cingulate

  1. As a professional photographer I feel it my duty to remind you that a major part of my skill was to capture a moment which reflected the emotion I wished to portray. Hilary Clinton responded to her equally emotive pose: ‘I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early Spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.’ We were also subsequently told that, contrary to the crucial first impression, the group could not have been witnessing the crucial phase of the ground operation as there was no video feed available.
    My BS detector also reacted to the amazing coincidence of having a clear view of most of the group at precisely the moment when each had such a perfect expression. Even as a professional I am hard pressed to catch such a perfect “Kodak Moment” without resorting to considerable artifice.
    I recall we have had some recent discussion over the validity of “data” and the use of examples (“for instances”) – just saying

    1. Apologies for the somewhat garbled comment above. It was hastily typed on my mobile and accidentally posted without checking- ooops.
      Take 2:
      First reactions to this photo were certainly profound and it will be an indelible part of many peoples emotional response to the events it claimed to depict. But as a photographer I should remind you that the camera does lie, and lies very effectively. Hillary Clinton’s look of horror is in the sharpest of focus however she admits “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early Spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.” We were subsequently told that, contrary to implication, the group could not have been witnessing the crucial phase of the ground operation as there was no video feed available.
      My BS detector also reacted to the amazing coincidence of having a clear view of most of the group at precisely the moment when each had such a perfect expression. It would be little short of a miracle for even the most skilled professional photographer to catch such a “Kodak Moment” without resorting to considerable artifice.
      My point is, of course, that this photo has been produced (at the very least “selected”) and published as a work of propaganda, therefore your choice of it as evidence for such complex analysis is a little surprising.

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.