Neuroself Live Blogs the Vice Presidential Debate

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Welcome to the second-ever Neuroself live-blog of… well…. anything

The main neuroscience concern tonight for the Democrats: will Joe Biden’s prefrontal cortex be able to put the brakes on sexual and aggressive impulses from the hypothalamus and limbic system sufficiently to evaluate their wisdom in the larger context of what’s going on in the campaign.

The main neuroscience concern tonight for the Republicans will be the opposite: Will Paul Ryan’s prefrontal cortex have such an icy grip on his limbic system that all he’ll produce will be a stream of facts and assertions that appear to have no relation to the affect he’s displaying. As far as I can tell, most of his facial expressions come from his primary motor cortex rather than his periaqueductal grey. Or as we say in New York, he seems forced.

One interesting thing to think about is what this would be like if it were a geeked out fMRI experiment. We’d have both Ryan and Biden on heart rate monitors, respiratory rate monitors, blood pressure monitors, and galvanic skin response monitors.

This would allow us a clear view of the functioning of their autonomic nervous systems.

Little medicine lesson: the autonomic nervous system is the one that governs the functioning of your internal organs – blood vessels, heart, lungs, guts, bladder, etc. It has two branches. One is in charge of “fight or flight.” That is called the sympathetic nervous system in medical jargon – so-named for its activation of what the Victorians call the “sympathies.” The other is for “rest or digest.” That’s called the parasympathetic.

When your heart rate is low, respiratory rate is low, blood pressure is low, galvanic skin response (sweat on your skin) is low, and your RSA (more on that in a sec) high you are in “rest and digest” mode. You are calm. You are in that happy, reflective, free-thinking mode that we all enjoy after a good meal. That’s the mode one wants to be in during a debate.When all those numbers are reversed, you’re in “fight or flight.”It would be fun to have the data allowing us to calculate this in real time for these debates. I’ll keep you posted on my guesses.

And here we go!

Martha looks like she’s had waaaaay less botox than Jim Lehrer. Possibly none.

Botox paralyzes the facial muscles and, it seems from last week, the urge to speak.

Same height! That means Biden, older, is taller. That means he’ll win!

Ryan drinks water. A sign of dry mouth = sympathetic tone.

Biden dodges the question of whether this was an intelligence failure in Libya, reframes it about intentions of Obama. Reframing is a prefrontal function. That whole saying about alcohol speaks the truth? That’s because you can’t reframe when prefrontal is off, and alcohol turns the prefrontal off. That’s why you make such shitty, fun decisions when you’re drunk.

A smirk from Ryan as Biden speaks. Is he channeling Obama?

And Ryan goes right after Biden for failing to call it an intelligence failure. Very aggressive, barely restrained fury. This means Ryan’s smirk was doing something totally different than Obama’s last week. Ryan is trying to control anger, Obama was trying to control self esteem.

Now Biden cracking up at Ryan’s assertion. This means we have a fight on our hand. Not the dynamic from last week at all. This will be a prize fight if the autonomic tone stays what it is.

Serotonin comment: the ability of the brain to control, contain, delay aggressive impulses is mediated by serotonin. If you have two animals, both with high testosterone and high cortisol – ready for a fight – the one with lower serotonin will attack first. The one with higher serotonin will wait for a good shot. The ability of these men to control their anger is a mark of good serotonin tone.

Look at Biden’s contained fury, he picked his moment to attack and took it, cut Ryan off. That’s good serotonin, good prefrontal, good testosterone, moderate cortisol. Amygdala, PAG well contained. All systems go for Joe.

Biden throws CIA under the bus.

He avoided this in his set response, diverted to it when pressed. That’s an algorithm most likely – this is not a first choice answer. That’s prefrontal functioning. Low prefrontal blames CIA from the start.

Biden diverts the attack, hits Romney at the end. Unrebutted, that’s a point for Biden.

Ryan showing first weakness here. If you find the transcript of this debate tomorrow, you’ll see sentence fragments here by Ryan. He starts sentences, doesn’t finish them.

Sentence fragments are a soft sign of a thought disorder (temporary, of course) that implicates the sequencing functions of PFC.

Confirmation of sequencing problems for Ryan: now he’s head down, writing. Something’s thrown him. Biden’s attack on Mitt?

Lip lick by Ryan. Dry mouth is sympathetic, as blood (and therefore plasma) is diverted to heart, lungs, and musculature.

That’s a real Duchenne’s smile from Biden. He is furious.

He is not overriding his limbic system, and his limbic system is geared for attack. Unless he tires or panics, he’ll be on offense all night.

My early assessment, based only on the nonverbals: Biden is winning. His nervous system feels on top. Ryan having some trouble, not feeling as dominant.

And there’s Ryan looking down and writing again. That’s a sign of prefontal down and that the brain is diverting towards a stereotyped evolutionarily conserved response – in this case, I think, fear.

Now Ryan empathizing with Ayatolahs. Literally “let’s look at this through the eyes of the Ayatolahs” this is of course a classic liberal instinct. What is he doing?Is this planned or is he winging it?

And now, from Ryan, a passive comment, like the Ayatolahs are dominant “they are not changing their mind.” Why is he framing things like this? Because he is unconsciously not feeling dominant.

Here’s Biden slamming Ryan. He reframes – on the fly – Ryan’s empathic impulse towards the Ayatolah and mocks it. He portrays the Ayatolahs as afraid, hobbled, crippled. That’s aggression.

And now Biden says “bunch of stuff” and Martha asks what is that and Ryan clarifies it for him! A supplicating, passive, submissive behavior.

Then Ryan drinks. Dry lips. Sympathetic tone. Anxiety.

Sidebar: people are not dominant or submissive in vacuums. You put w people in a room and they don’t both go dominant. They pair off. In a lull I’ll explain this, but it has to do with the reciprocal behavior of the cortisol and testosterone systems (the HPG and HPA axes). My guess: Biden is seeing a testosterone rise, Ryan a cortisol rise. But Ryan’s a fighter – he may come back.

That’s put 2 people in a room.

Martha hits Biden with Obama’s prediction of unemployment below 6%. How will he deal with it?

By diverting to tangential issues. That’s good sequencing. But he did have a real senior moment earlier – couldn’t remember Romney’s current position on sanctions on Iran. Ryan – too polite – didn’t pounce.

Ryan is smirking. Let’s see – is it a self-esteem boosting smirk or a fury-diverting smirk?

Biden still very aggressive. And Ryan head down, writing, looking at the audience raising eyebrows. He’s feeling fear.

Nice set piece by Ryan about one month’s economic growth being slower than the last’s.

He’s into a set piece here. Well written, memorized perfectly.

Long interrupted set piece by Ryan about Mitt Romney paying college tuition for the needy. Biden has – like a good therapist during a set piece – tuned out.

Ryan gets a big nasty laugh at Biden’s expense – about his memory and propensity to misspeak.

Biden proceeds to have trouble speaking.

Now Biden into a set piece, Ryan smirking. Biden not speaking nearly as smoothly as Ryan, more glitches and pauses. Get’s cut off by Biden.

I mean get’s cut off by Raditz.

Biden’s sequencing problems betray a weakness; will Ryan gain confidence? It is after all his first debate.

Biden busts Ryan asking for stimulus money after Ryan claims the stimulus was bad. In psychotherapy this is called a confrontation. You take two things a patient says, and point out that they contradict one another. Automatically puts them on the defensive.

Ryan fights back. He’s got a solid nervous system. I don’t think we’re going to see an Obama-style panic attack from either tonight – if it was going to happen, it would have happened. That means that the debate is likely to be won on the basis of the cognitive points made.One of the problems with last week was that something asymmetrical unfolded. Obama went into a submissive limbic fear mode, prefrontal shut down, he couldn’t think for the first hour. And then his campaign spent a week making up fake reasons for his behavior. Romney, meanwhile, went dominant mode, turned parasympathetic, and had full free reign to exercise his prefrontal in the service of his various claims. As a result the home viewer was left comparing apples to soybeans, and chose the apples.What’s happening here is what *should* happen in a debate. Both nervous systems are intact – Ryan had a blip in the first 25 minutes but has stabilized nicely – and prefrontal cortex in both brains is free to sequence, prioritize, consider alternatives, strategize at will. You’re likely to see a raw comparison of IQ here because limbic isn’t around to subvert prefrontal activity.This is why anxious people take xanax or anti-depressants. These meds stabilize the amgydala and PAG (in the case of xanax) or serotonin tone (in the case of ADs). Their prefrontals are then free to demonstrate them at their best. When people talk about medications distorting their real selves, or decline medications because “I want to be me” what they are really talking about is the prefrontal-limbic dynamic.

I don’t know what the various tickers are showing, but my guess is that for people heavily influenced by the sympathetic/parasympathetic balance of contestants in a debate are seeing this debate as a draw. I’m curious to see the flash polls.

Ryan geeking out. That’s what he does when he’s calm.

Biden is giving a rambling, relaxed response, pleasant and confusing all at once. That’s what he does when he’s calm.

Ryan and Biden run over Raditz about social security. Ryan gives a nice answer about Social Security helping his family, he doesn’t want to lose it.

Nice set piece by Ryan. My guess is that reporters getting ready to file stories are going to be paying increasing attention to these things. Ryan could be seen to win on them.

Let’s watch Biden’s response to see how coherent it is.

Raditz is staying on Ryan. Tries to pin him down on his deficit plan. He wiggles out of it repeatedly. An opening for Biden to catch him.

Raditz cuts off Ryan once she realizes he is not answering the question. She seemed annoyed. A very un-Lehrer move.

Biden is super-pissed. Look how his sequencing gets better when he’s mad! If there is cortical atrophy, one explanation would be increased blood flow.

A math argument! A math argument!

Biden with a good zinger. After Ryan claims that his math claim was done first by JFK Biden zips “oh so now you’re Jack Kennedy!”

Raditz and Biden tag-teaming Ryan in effort to get him to make a specific promise about the deficit. His autonomic nervous system may be fine, but his position is looking shaky.

Raditz clearly annoyed that Ryan is giving no specifics on the deficit. She’s displaying way more personality than Lehrer.

Raditz forcefully switches to Afghanistan.

I’ve just been informed that the moderator’s last name is Raddatz. My apologies to Martha Raditz, wherever she may be.

The passion has gone out of the debate; everyone seems more or less on the same page emotionally. I’m not following the inner logic of their arguments.

Biden is super pissed again about the surge, and being questioned on it.

Ryan doing a wonderful job of explaining fighting seasons. A visual, cinematic description of mountains and snow. Very relatable.

Biden seems to seem a bit confused, defensive. Ryan seems cognitively on top of his game. Interesting moment.

Biden doing his drunk uncle at the dinner table routine – shouting about an obscure point that is a little wrong and a little right. Ryan looking like the bemused nephew. Viewers having flashbacks to Thanksgiving. Not good for Biden. Ryan seems more organized in his thinking here.

But Biden’s passion coming through. Ryan’s smirk is tightening.

I have to look into this phenomenon I keep seeing with Biden: his thinking gets better, more organized, when he is angry; it gets sloppier and harder to follow when he calms down. Fascinating. I’ll make it a learning issue and try to blog about it sometime.

Ryan coming back with a lot of details, lists, a highly organized display. A nice Aristotelean dichotomy emerging in this last half hour of Biden as the Passions and Ryan as Reason.

We’re onto Syria. America collectively getting up to make a sandwich.

Raddatz (and for all I know, Raditz) wants Ryan to say whether or not he would intervene in another country for humanitarian interests. The answer: no.

Raddatz slyly then reminds us Ryan is a Catholic. What was Christ’s position on humanitarian intervention anyway – I forget.

Let me follow Ryan’s pro-life reasoning here.1. My firstborn child looked like a bean on ultrasound in the womb.
2. After my firstborn child was born, we nicknamed them “bean”
3. Beans are human beings
4. Therefore I am against abortion.

Question: can somebody get a photograph of Paul Ryan eating beans? And then arrest him for murder?

Still in a state of shock here over Ryan’s mindbogglingly pre-Socratic logic. Actually, that’s not fair. Democritus was pre-Socratic, and he deduced the atom.

Comment From nw

nice. eating lentils now.

Let’s start a national pro-choice movement. Eat beans tomorrow and tweet a picture of it to Paul Ryan.

We’re in the home stretch. Raddatz asks if the campaign on all sides is too negative. This is likely to induce a sober, wise response from both candidates. A better question: “I like to eat Mexican food twice a week. Does that make me a mass murderer?”

Ryan ending nicely, I think. “Leaders run to problems to fix problems.” Making tackling the debt crisis his main goal. A good, clear proposal from a bean counter. Oh the humanity!

Raddatz ends by depriving Biden of full time. Probably a blessing.

Biden ends by slamming Ryan and Romney, implying they will mess things up. Falls into Ryan story that Obama administration doesn’t have instinct to lead.

Biden ends complaining about time asymmetry. Not a great move. A good prefrontal considers complaining, doesn’t.

Closing statements. Biden up. Lot of umming. Lottttttttttt of umming. Looking down a lot. What’s going on? Didn’t he memorize anything? Or has he forgotten it?

Biden descending into metaphors and truisms. A bedtime story. I’m sleepy.

Ryan up. Looking into camera with those puppydog eyes. He looks about twelve years old. The pattern of this spiel is that of a car advertisement. He’s about to say “come on down to Romney’s! Two for one ribs – but no beans!”

It’s over. Raddatz rocked it. And Martha Raditz – wherever you are – I hope you rocked it too.


In honor of Paul Ryan:

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