Here’s What Happens Inside the Mind of a Filibusterer
Last weekend’s Orlando shooting inspired plenty of moments of silence. But now it’s time for talk. Since 11:21 am Eastern, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy (a Democrat) has been filibustering his colleagues. Murphy says he won’t stop yammering until the Senate takes some kind of action on universal background checks on all guns, along with better checks to keep potential terrorists from buying weapons.
Or maybe his bladder will end things prematurely. Either way, speaking for prolonged periods of time does strange things to a person’s brain. Listening, too. Of course, nobody’s really studied exactly what your brain looks like on a filibuster. But scientists can make some extrapolations based on known psychological principles.
“It’s not easy to do neuroscience research on situations like this,” writes Russell Poldrack, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University, in an email. “So anything that we say would be a pretty wild extrapolation.” That said, Poldrack says science does show that cognitive processing activities—like attention—will decline over a long period of activity.
That’s because filibustering has all the hallmarks of torture. “This kind of stuff came up in Abu Ghraib,” says Frank Farley, psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. “One of the classic torture techniques is to keep people standing for hours on end, keep them from sitting down, sleeping, going to the restroom.” Torture has a profound effect on a person’s brain: It makes the victim feel like they have lost control, and it can lead to depression, a sense of hopelessness, and fatigue.
“I’m not sure that this has been studied in the kinds of situations we are seeing here, where people are highly motivated and energized,” writes Poldrack. “It may be that the intense motivation in this situation can overcome the effects of fatigue.” Because again, Murphy is doing this to himself.
Which means he is basically feeding his own commitment to the cause. “When we take a position on something in front of others, we are more likely to abide by it,” says Keith Humphreys, psychiatrist at Stanford University and former adviser to President Obama. Same goes for the political allies assisting him with rhetorical questions and supporting statistics. “Their own identities should be changing, because now they are very publicly identified with this issue and this moment,” says Humphreys.
For Murphy, the assists are good long term strategy: Taking breaks to take care of his brain (and body) will probably help him stay on his soapbox for the distance. Another factor that could help: Like many politicians, he’s likely an extrovert, feeding off the energy of the room of listeners around him.
Which might lend a clue as to who is really being tortured. “For creative, active people, boredom is deadly,” says Farley. Senators who oppose Murphy probably didn’t slump into ennui immediately, thanks to the excitement at the beginning of the day. “The filibuster begins with a big point, causing an arousal in the listeners’ brains,” says Farley. Particularly if the speaker is making targeted attacks—not unheard of in Washington.
But eventually, it all wears off. A classic 1956 study in the journal Brain showed that if a person is exposed to the same stimulus again and again, a process called habituation kicks in. If you were to look at habituation in progress on an EEG, you’d see spikes of activity gradually disappearing into a baseline. “I don’t know if they allow cell phone use in Congress, but I predict they’ll start to tweet, do some writing, or just go into a reverie,” says Farley.
Or just become incredibly annoyed. “When people get exhausted, they are more prone to extreme views,” says Humphreys. In experiments, psychologists have shown people pictures with shapes inside that are equal black and white. Well-rested subjects will say they aren’t sure, while those who are tired tend to get passionate over whether the square is mostly one color or the other.
Humphreys says he saw this a lot when working in the White House. “When people were calm and rested, they could see issues a lot of different ways, but the more tired they got the more likely they were to argue over the correct way to say potato.” This kind of polarization might seem antithetical to the filibuster’s purpose—after all, this gamble seems more likely to galvanize political opponents. But everyone knows a filibuster isn’t really for the people twiddling their thumbs in the Senate. It’s a way to get the rest of us talking.
Murphy (L) and Senator Richard Durbin (R) leaving the Senate Democrats’ policy lunch on Tuesday, June 14, 2016.
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