Voting Our Brains, Minds and Hearts


Los Angeles Times

By Leo Rangell
Leo Rangell is honorary president of the International Psychoanalytic Assn. and a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. His book "The Mind of Watergate: An Exploration of the Compromise of Integri

Los Angeles Times

November 2, 2004

Deciding how to vote or whether to vote is a complex path. As in all decision-making, although the final act can take but a second, it is the result of a process that can reach down to your bootstraps and recapitulate your entire history.

Every time you act, you first unconsciously assess the risks. Then you make a move, which is special for each situation and traverses a different and unique path in every person. When an issue comes up for decision, an unconscious process tests all related memories, checking for a signal of anxiety, assessing danger or safety.

Action that is automatic, like walking or carrying on a conversation, has been tested repeatedly, and the signal process can be largely bypassed. Voting isn't automatic. Not whether to vote and not how to vote.

Those who will exercise their rights as citizens today will arrive at the voting booth after taking different mental journeys. Some will have considered the social or foreign policy programs of the candidates with sustained rationality, studying the issues with the same care as a professional pundit. Others follow hunches, intuitive appraisals. Others come to conclusions as a reflex, reacting, with lightning speed, to emotional clues. Mostly, each individual has gone through some composite of all these approaches.

One voter may grapple with profound and long-range consequences of his choice; another decides on the basis of no more than the surface layer: "I like, or trust, this one or the other," or "My father was a Republican, or Democrat, and so am I." Or there will be a subtle but decisive identification with one or the other contestant on the basis of a perceived character trait: "He's tough and hits back. I like that" or "He thinks first, and then acts. I trust his thoughtfulness more than the other guy's."

Someone else may not care either way, and may not vote. That person is equally responsible for what happens; he turned down a chance to act. He may then like the results or not.

Neuroscience, comprising neurobiology and neuropsychology, has increased our knowledge of all behavior, including decision-making.

On the biological side, various brain areas are shown to be active in different types of memory, serving different phases of the decision-making process. The sensory parietal cortex receives and stores information; the hippocampus is a way station for repressed memories; the amygdala and basic ganglia link to emotional responses, including the central affect of anxiety; neurons and association pathways connect these deeper structures to the higher cortical areas; judgment, abstract thinking and final, conscious decisions and choices are made by the left prefrontal cortex.

In an atmosphere of fear, including perhaps the atmosphere created by a war on terror, the brain regresses to earlier functioning, and younger, even infantile, ways return. We want reassurance, to be taken care of. In a "fog of fear," which may be created by propaganda as much as by information, the primitive brain — which as been referred to evolutionarily if not metaphorically as our lizard brain — is reactivated, and automatic, reflex, emotional behavior patterns appear.

But there is more to it. The brain does not initiate action; the mind does, consciously and unconsciously. Voting is a final act after a long prelude. Neuroscience adds to our knowledge of how the brain is used by the mind to navigate the external world. The psychoanalytic delineation of mental structures and their functions goes a long way toward filling in and explaining the total process.

It is not the finger that presses the lever that chooses and votes or the cortex that emits the impulse. If it is merely a part of the body that voted, the person gets no credit nor does he or she bear responsibility. But in reality we vote with our minds via an executive system, the ego, which confers on us responsibility for decisions and their consequences.

Other mental structures, the id and the superego, play their roles as well. The superego, for example, is either for rationality or for permitting laxity or self-centered acts. In 1972, it was the latter. The people elected Richard Nixon president by the second-largest landslide in U.S. history six months after the Watergate break-in, two months after it was tied to the White House. In a psychoanalytic study of this era, I identified "the syndrome of the compromise of integrity" as endemic in sociopolitical life.

We vote with our brains, our minds — and our hearts. And we bear a responsibility for what follows. It is for each of us to decide whether to decide, and how much and what kind of responsibility we want. Is either candidate, or only one, qualified to be president and commander in chief? Your vote — or its absence — holds the answer.