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There's a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex
Clive Thompson, (c) Oct. 26, 2003 New York Times

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 When he isn't pondering the inner workings of the mind,
 Read Montague, a 43-year-old neuroscientist at Baylor
 College of Medicine, has been known to contemplate the
 other mysteries of life: for instance, the Pepsi Challenge.
 In the series of TV commercials from the 70's and 80's that
 pitted Coke against Pepsi in a blind taste test, Pepsi was
 usually the winner. So why, Montague asked himself not long
 ago, did Coke appeal so strongly to so many people if it
 didn't taste any better?

 Over several months this past summer, Montague set to work
 looking for a scientifically convincing answer. He
 assembled a group of test subjects and, while monitoring
 their brain activity with an M.R.I. machine, recreated the
 Pepsi Challenge. His results confirmed those of the TV
 campaign: Pepsi tended to produce a stronger response than
 Coke in the brain's ventral putamen, a region thought to
 process feelings of reward. (Monkeys, for instance, exhibit
 activity in the ventral putamen when they receive food for
 completing a task.) Indeed, in people who preferred Pepsi,
 the ventral putamen was five times as active when drinking
 Pepsi than that of Coke fans when drinking Coke.
 In the real world, of course, taste is not everything. So
 Montague tried to gauge the appeal of Coke's image, its
 ''brand influence,'' by repeating the experiment with a
 small variation: this time, he announced which of the
 sample tastes were Coke. The outcome was remarkable: almost all the subjects said they preferred Coke. What's more, the brain activity of the subjects was now different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of
 the brain that scientists say governs high-level cognitive
 powers. Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more
 sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories
 and other impressions of the drink -- in a word, its brand
 -- to shape their preference.
 Pepsi, crucially, couldn't achieve the same effect. When
 Montague reversed the situation, announcing which tastes
 were of Pepsi, far fewer of the subjects said they
 preferred Pepsi. Montague was impressed: he had
 demonstrated, with a fair degree of neuroscientific
 precision, the special power of Coke's brand to override
 our taste buds.
 Measuring brand influence might seem like an unusual
 activity for a neuroscientist, but Montague is just one of
 a growing breed of researchers who are applying the methods
 of the neurology lab to the questions of the advertising
 world. Some of these researchers, like Montague, are purely
 academic in focus, studying the consumer mind out of
 intellectual curiosity, with no corporate support.
 Increasingly, though, there are others -- like several of
 the researchers at the Mind of the Market Laboratory at
 Harvard Business School -- who work as full-fledged
 ''neuromarketers,'' conducting brain research with the help
 of corporate financing and sharing their results with their
 sponsors. This summer, when it opened its doors for
 business, the BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences in
 Atlanta became the first neuromarketing firm to boast a
 Fortune 500 consumer-products company as a client. (The
 client's identity is currently a secret.) The institute
 will scan the brains of a representative sample of its
 client's prospective customers, assess their reactions to
 the company's products and advertising and tweak the
 corporate image accordingly.
 Not long ago, M.R.I. machines were used solely for medical
 purposes, like diagnosing strokes or discovering tumors.
 But neuroscience has reached a sort of cocky adolescence;
 it has become routine to read about researchers tackling
 every subject under the sun, placing test subjects in
 M.R.I. machines and analyzing their brain activity as they
 do everything from making moral choices to praying to
 appreciating beauty. Paul C. Lauterbur, a chemist who
 shared this year's Nobel Prize in medicine for his
 contribution in the early 70's to the invention of the
 M.R.I. machine, notes how novel the uses of his invention
 have become. ''Things are getting a lot more subtle than
 we'd ever thought,'' he says. It seems only natural that
 the commercial world has finally caught on. ''You don't
 have to be a genius to say, 'My God, if you combine making
 the can red with making it less sweet, you can measure this
 in a scanner and see the result,''' Montague says. ''If I
 were Pepsi, I'd go in there and I'd start scanning
 The neuroscience wing at Emory University Hospital in
 Atlanta is the epicenter of the neuromarketing world. Like
 most medical wards, it is filled with an air of quiet,
 antiseptic tension. On a recent visit, in the hallway
 outside an M.R.I. room, a patient milled around in a light
 blue paper gown. A doctor on a bench flipped through a
 clipboard and talked in soothing tones to a man in glasses,
 a young woman anxiously clutching his arm.
 It was not a place where you would expect to encounter
 slick marketing research. And when Justine Meaux, a
 research scientist for the BrightHouse Institute, came out
 to greet me, she did seem strangely out of place. Clicking
 along in strappy sandals, with a tight sleeveless top and
 purple toenail polish, she looked more like a chic TV
 producer than a neuroscientist, which she is. Her
 specialty, as she explained, is ''the neural dynamics of
 the perception and production of rhythmic sensorimotor
 patterns'' -- though these days she spends her professional
 life thinking about shopping. ''I'm really getting into
 reading all this business stuff now, learning about
 campaigns, branding,'' she said, leading me down the
 hallway to the M.R.I. chamber that the Institute uses.
 Three years ago, after earning her Ph.D., she decided she
 wanted to apply brain scanning to everyday problems and was
 intrigued by marketing as a ''practical application of
 psychology,'' as she put it. She told me that she admired
 the ''Intel Inside'' advertising campaign, with its TV
 spots showing dancing men in body suits. ''Intel actually
 branded the inside of a computer,'' she marveled. ''They
 took the most abstract thing you can imagine and figured
 out a way to make people identify with it.''
 When we reached the M.R.I. control room, Clint Kilts, the
 scientific director of the BrightHouse Institute, was
 fiddling away at a computer keyboard. A professor in the
 department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory,
 Kilts began working with Meaux in 2001. Meaux had learned
 that Kilts and a group of marketers were founding the
 BrightHouse Institute, and she joined their team, becoming
 perhaps the world's first full-time neuromarketer. Kilts is
 confident that there will soon be room for other full-time
 careers in neuromarketing. ''You will actually see this
 being part of the decision-making process, up and down the
 company,'' he predicted. ''You are going to see more large
 companies that will have neuroscience divisions.''
 The BrightHouse Institute's techniques are based, in part,
 on an experiment that Kilts conducted earlier this year. He
 gathered a group of test subjects and asked them to look at
 a series of commercial products, rating how strongly they
 liked or disliked them. Then, while scanning their brains
 in an M.R.I. machine, he showed them pictures of the
 products again. When Kilts looked at the images of their
 brains, he was struck by one particular result: whenever a
 subject saw a product he had identified as one he truly
 loved -- something that might prompt him to say, ''That's
 just so me!'' -- his brain would show increased activity in
 the medial prefrontal cortex.
 Kilts was excited, for he knew that this region of the
 brain is commonly associated with our sense of self.
 Patients with damage in this area of the brain, for
 instance, often undergo drastic changes in personality; in
 one famous case, a mild-mannered 19th-century railworker
 named Phineas Gage abruptly became belligerent after an
 accident that destroyed his medial prefrontal cortex. More
 recently, M.R.I. studies have found increased activity in
 this region when people are asked if adjectives like
 ''trustworthy'' or ''courageous'' apply to them. When the
 medial prefrontal cortex fires, your brain seems to be
 engaging, in some manner, with what sort of person you are.
 If it fires when you see a particular product, Kilts
 argues, it's most likely to be because the product clicks
 with your self-image.
 This result provided the BrightHouse Institute with an
 elegant tool for testing marketing campaigns and brands. An
 immediate, intuitive bond between consumer and product is
 one that every company dreams of making. ''If you like
 Chevy trucks, it's because that has become the larger
 gestalt of who you self-attribute as,'' Kilts said, using
 psychology-speak. ''You're a Chevy guy.'' With the help of
 neuromarketers, he claims, companies can now know with
 certainty whether their products are making that special
 To demonstrate their technique, Kilts and Meaux offered to
 stick my head in the M.R.I. machine. They laid me down
 headfirst in the coffinlike cylinder and scurried out to
 the observation room. ''Here's what I want you to do,''
 Meaux said, her voice crackling over an intercom. ''I'm
 going to show you a bunch of images of products and
 activities -- and I want you to picture yourself using
 them. Don't think about whether you like them or not. Just
 put yourself in the scene.''
 I peered up into a mirror positioned over my head, and she
 began flashing pictures. There were images of a Hummer, a
 mountain bike, a can of Pepsi. Then a Lincoln Navigator,
 Martha Stewart, a game of basketball and dozens more
 snapshots of everyday consumption. I imagined piloting the
 Hummer off-road, playing a game of pickup basketball,
 swigging the Pepsi. (I was less sure what to do with Martha
 After about 15 minutes, Kilts pulled me out, and I joined
 him at a bank of computers. ''Look here,'' he said,
 pointing to a screen that showed an image of a brain in
 cross sections. He pointed to a bright yellow spot on the
 right side, in the somatosensory cortex, an area that shows
 activity when you emulate sensory experience -- as when I
 imagined what it would be like to drive a Hummer. If a
 marketer finds that his product is producing a response in
 this region of the brain, he can conclude that he has not
 made the immediate, instinctive sell: even if a consumer
 has a positive attitude toward the product, if he has to
 mentally ''try it out,'' he isn't instantly identifying
 with it.
 Kilts stabbed his finger at another glowing yellow dot near
 the top of the brain. It was the magic spot -- the medial
 prefrontal cortex. If that area is firing, a consumer isn't
 deliberating, he said: he's itching to buy. ''At that
 point, it's intuitive. You say: 'I'm going to do it. I want
 it.' ''
 The consuming public has long had an uneasy feeling about
 scientists who dabble in marketing. In 1957, Vance Packard
 wrote ''The Hidden Persuaders,'' a book about marketing
 that featured harsh criticism of ''psychology professors
 turned merchandisers.'' Marketers, Packard worried, were
 using the resources of the social sciences to understand
 consumers' irrational and emotional urges -- the better to
 trick them into increased product consumption. In
 rabble-rousing prose, Packard warned about subliminal
 advertising and cited a famous (though, it turned out,
 bogus) study about a movie theater that inserted into a
 film several split-second frames urging patrons to drink
 In truth, marketers only wish they had that much control.
 If anything, corporations tend to look slightly askance at
 their admen, because there's not much convincing evidence
 that advertising works as well as promised. John Wanamaker,
 a department-store magnate in the late 19th century,
 famously quipped that half the money he spent on
 advertising was wasted, but that he didn't know which half.
 In their quest for a more respectable methodology -- or
 perhaps more important, the appearance of one -- admen have
 plundered one scientific technique after another.
 Demographic studies have profiled customers by analyzing
 their age, race or neighborhood; telephone surveys have
 queried semi-randomly selected strangers to see how the
 public at large viewed a company's product.
 Advertising's main tool, of course, has been the focus
 group, a classic technique of social science. Marketers in
 the United States spent more than $1 billion last year on
 focus groups, the results of which guided about $120
 billion in advertising. But focus groups are plagued by a
 basic flaw of human psychology: people often do not know
 their own minds. Joey Reiman is the C.E.O. of BrightHouse,
 an Atlanta marketing firm, and a founding partner in the
 BrightHouse Institute; over years of producing marketing
 concepts for companies like Coca-Cola and Red Lobster, he
 has come to the conclusion that focus groups are ultimately
 less about gathering hard data and more about pretending to
 have concrete justifications for a hugely expensive ad
 campaign. ''The sad fact is, people tell you what you want
 to hear, not what they really think,'' he says. ''Sometimes
 there's a focus-group bully, a loudmouth who's so insistent
 about his opinion that it influences everyone else. This is
 not a science; it's a circus.''
 In contrast, M.R.I. scanning offers the promise of concrete
 facts -- an unbiased glimpse at a consumer's mind in
 action. To an M.R.I. machine, you cannot misrepresent your
 responses. Your medial prefrontal cortex will start firing
 when you see something you adore, even if you claim not to
 like it. ''Let's say I show you Playboy,'' Kilts says,
 ''and you go, 'Oh, no, no, no!' Really? We could tell you
 actually like it.''
 Other neuromarketers have demonstrated that we react to
 products in ways that we may not be entirely conscious of.
 This year, for instance, scientists working with
 DaimlerChrysler scanned the brains of a number of men as
 they looked at pictures of cars and rated them for
 attractiveness. The scientists found that the most popular
 vehicles -- the Porsche- and Ferrari-style sports cars --
 triggered activity in a section of the brain called the
 fusiform face area, which governs facial recognition.
 ''They were reminded of faces when they looked at the
 cars,'' says Henrik Walter, a psychiatrist at the
 University of Ulm in Germany who ran the study. ''The
 lights of the cars look a little like eyes.''
 Neuromarketing may also be able to suss out the distinction
 between advertisements that people merely like and those
 that are actually effective -- a difference that can be
 hard to detect from a focus group. A neuromarketing study
 in Australia, for instance, demonstrated that supershort,
 MTV-style jump cuts -- indeed, any scenes shorter than two
 seconds -- aren't as likely to enter the long-term memory
 of viewers, however bracing or aesthetically pleasing they
 may be.
 Still, many scientists are skeptical of neuromarketing. The
 brain, critics point out, is still mostly an enigma; just
 because we can see neurons firing doesn't mean we always
 know what the mind is doing. For all their admirable
 successes, neuroscientists do not yet have an agreed-upon
 map of the brain. ''I keep joking that I could do this
 Gucci shoes study, where I'd show people shoes I think are
 beautiful, and see whether women like them,'' says
 Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology at New York
 University. ''And I'll see activity in the brain. I
 definitely will. But it's not like I've found 'the shoe
 center of the brain.''' James Twitchell, a professor of
 advertising at the University of Florida, wonders whether
 neuromarketing isn't just the next stage of scientific
 pretense on the part of the advertising industry.
 ''Remember, you have to ask the client for millions,
 millions of dollars,'' he says. ''So you have to say:
 'Trust me. We have data. We've done these neurotests. Go
 with us, we know what we're doing.''' Twitchell recently
 attended an advertising conference where a marketer
 discussed neuromarketing. The entire room sat in awe as the
 speaker suggested that neuroscience will finally crack open
 the mind of the shopper. ''A lot of it is just garbage,''
 he says, ''but the garbage is so powerful.''
 In response to his critics, Kilts plans to publish the
 BrightHouse research in an accredited academic journal. He
 insisted to me that his primary allegiance is to science;
 BrightHouse's techniques are ''business done in the science
 method,'' he said, ''not science done in the business
 method.'' And as he sat at his computer, calling up a 3-D
 picture of a brain, it was hard not to be struck, at the
 very least, by the seriousness of his passion. There, on
 the screen, was the medial prefrontal cortex, juggling our
 conscious thinking. There was the amygdala, governing our
 fears, buried deep in the brain. These are sights that he
 said still inspire in him feelings of wonder. ''When you
 sit down and you're watching -- for the first time in the
 history of mankind -- how we process complex primary
 emotions like anger, it's amazing,'' he said. ''You're
 like, there, look at that: that's anger, that's pleasure.
 When you see that roll off the workstation, you never look
 back.'' You just keep going, it seems, until you hit
 Madison Avenue.
 Clive Thompson writes frequently about science and
 technology. His most recent article for the magazine was
 about the future of kitchen tools.


Index: Cognitive Liberty & Neuromarketing