Neuromarketing: the battle for our brains is big business

Fuente: The Irish Times

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A 3D fMRI of speech activity in the brain: high (red), medium (yellow), low (green). Photograph: Stegerphoto/Getty

Scientists can map thought processes using fMRI scans, and corporations see it as a golden opportunity to market their products directly to the subconscious.

Scientists in Trinity College Dublin routinely look inside a live brain to reveal its workings using fMRI scans. These scans can open a window on to our thoughts or reveal traces of thought processes we are unaware of, which has given rise to a new area of research: neuromarketing.

Brain scans of a 23-year-old woman, who was in a vegetative state in the UK after a car accident, showed that language areas in her brain lit up when she was asked her name, and a motor area lit up when she was asked to imagine playing tennis. Surgeons now use the technique to pinpoint language centres before brain surgery. And, recently, researchers were able to tell which alphabetical letter a person was looking at by examining such fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans.

But brain imaging is also of interest to companies and marketers, which for some raises worrying ethical issues. US scientists warn that it is possible, for example, that neuroimaging could allow the creation of a “super-heroin of food” – a product so delicious, so addictive, we would find it irresistible.

“Science is certainly being applied to persuade consumers to buy things we don’t need,” says English neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. “Purchasing decisions may well have been implanted in your mind.” In the 1980s Lewis accidentally discovered “neuromarketing” while showing TV adverts for Werther’s Original sweets as part of his doctoral thesis on stress and anxiety. He used EEG (electroencephalography), which records electrical activity in the brain.

Since the 1990s scientist now also have access to fMRI, a time-lapse form of MRI that works by detecting changes in blood flow a few seconds after brain-cell activity. “If I ask you to take 17 away from 1,000 and do that all the way to zero, we reliably see changes in a front part of the brain where working memory is believed to be supported,” says Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research in Trinity.

Such scans, in the last decade or so, suggest that we run at least two brain networks: a resting state network and an active state. “The brain flicks between these states with great regularity,” says O’Mara. “The resting state is particularly associated with the mind-wandering phase, and what it is doing is kind of mysterious; there’s a suggestion that when an idea comes to mind, the resting state network is pushing that into consciousness.”

Coca-Cola and Pepsi

Anything that reveals hidden information we are unable to verbalise or rationalise is attractive in marketing. The most famous fMRI marketing experiment compared preferences for Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Participants favouring Coke showed more action in the hippocampus and other brain regions associated with memory, but only when told what they were drinking. Pepsi drinkers did not have this response, suggesting brain differences due to branding.

“The study does not explain how the advertising campaigns of Coca-Cola changed people’s perception of the drink, which is a limitation of the research,” says Dr Arun Bokde, neuroimaging expert in Trinity. “Neuroimaging can answer questions, but specific questions”; it is certainly not some sort of mind-reader.

Another fMRI experiment showed “willingness to pay” for something could be predicted by looking at activity levels in two frontal regions of the brain.

Dr Lewis, who runs the research consultancy Mindlab International in the UK, says there has been overselling and hype in neuromarketing, but there are fundamental insights to be gained. In his recent book, The Brain Sell: When Science Meets Shopping, he warns us to be aware of subliminal selling. One example is the power of lighting and smells to influence shoppers. Our interpretation of smell is processed in the brain itself, and smell is easily attached to emotions and memories.

“A lot of our decisions are made below the level of conscious awareness, and then we rationalise them. The frontal lobes – the executive parts of the brain – have been likened to a PR department. We have done something, so the frontal region of the brain needs to give us and the world a reason why we did it,” says Dr Lewis. Marketers want to bypass this rationalising logic and get to the network that made the decision, and they are hiring smart people to do so. It need not be bad news, say scientists: instead of food heroin, neuromarketing might help make nutritious foods more appealing, for example.

Some provisos are needed. fMRI is a statistical technique, not a crystal ball into one person’s mind. “There are companies selling MRI services for lie detection for employees and they make claims that are ridiculously oversold,” says O’Mara. “fMRI is a physiological measuring technique conducted on an organ aware of its own existence. It is easy to take countermeasures to obliterate the signal, simply by clenching your toes, biting your cheek or recalling an emotional event.”

MIND MATTERS: REVEALING TRACES OF ALZHEIMER’S

Irish scientists are using brain scans in an effort to develop tests that would enable doctors to diagnose Alzheimer’s much earlier.

Memory glitches are a classic sign of Alzheimer’s, and several studies have found some shrinkage in the seahorse-shaped hippocampus area of the brain – an area essential for memory formation and retention – at an early stage of the disease.

“We are focusing now on the early pre-clinical stage of the disease, so before symptoms start showing up,” says Dr Arun Bokde, a neuroimaging researcher in Trinity College Dublin.

“We now believe that the disease develops 10-20 years before symptoms appear, so at this stage there might be slow, subtle changes in the brain.

“This is the challenge: to make predictions.”

One of the difficulties with spotting a brain creeping towards full-blown Alzheimer’s is that mild changes of perhaps 2-5 per cent are involved, while a normal change might be 1 per cent over the same time period. These figures are in no way fixed, and our brains vary greatly from one individual to another.

Trinity’s research MRI scanner uses powerful magnets, which are about 100,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field, to magnetise the hydrogen atoms in water. Bone contains almost no hydrogen, so is bypassed.

Signals come back as radiowaves, which radiographer Sojo Joseph helps convert to brain images. An active brain region requires a resupply of oxygenated blood, and the scan illustrates these changes. Joseph has facilitated studies of brains for Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive impairment and, recently, chronic pain.

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