originally published on October 28, 2010
Stephen Colbert’s much-publicized March to Keep Fear Alive tomorrow-and his whole schtick really-may be making a far greater political impact than you consciously realize. I’m no neuroscientist, but I might even argue that the faux right-wing pundit is physically altering the very structure of your brain.
Such an outlandish allegation requires a little set-up. Ready for an adventure into the political brain?
Let’s start with rats.
In a brilliant Radiolab episode called Memory and Forgetting (I highly recommend listening to the first 21 minutes here), hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss a memory experiment with rats. They play an audio tone for a rat, just before giving it a slight electrical shock. Predictably, the next time the tone is played, the rat reacts. Here’s Jad:
The moment it hears the tone and then feels the shock, inside its head a bunch of neurons start to build a connection… Memory is a structure that connects one brain cell to another. So the next time that the rat hears that damn tone, since inside its brain tone brain cells are physically connected to shock brain cells, it’s gonna know that after this [tone sound plays] comes this [shock sound effect plays]. Instead of just listening passively, it’s gonna freeze, bracing itself for what is about to happen.