Getting Inside Your Head
Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2005
Getting Inside Your Head
As "neuro" goes mainstream, Big Business hopes to decode the brain's secrets
By TERRY MCCARTHY/LOS ANGELES
Marketers already seem to know a lot about how we think, but what if they could actually watch our brains work as they test their products? A recent experiment by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, may be laying the groundwork for just that. In an experiment last year, he scanned volunteers' brains as they drank samples of Coke and Pepsi. When the colas were not identified, the tasters showed no particular preference for either. But when they were shown the iconic red-and-white label, they expressed a huge preference for Coke, irrespective of which cola they were actually sampling. Coke's logo, the scans showed, lit up areas in the brain associated with pleasure expectation in a way that Pepsi's did not. Montague's conclusion: Coke's more pervasive brand marketing affected volunteers' preferences in ways they didn't realize--even if they were normally Pepsi drinkers.
Get ready for an Era of the Brain. New scanning techniques are making it easier to determine how our minds work and creating hopes in the corporate world that companies can make new connections with customers--and duplicate the Coke effect. The breakthrough behind all that is the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the latest in neuroimaging technology, which displays not only the structure of the brain but also how it actually functions, by measuring its blood flow. In the scans, specific areas of the brain light up as various mental processes occur. Although the technology is still in its infancy, the potential for looking inside the mind is already attracting researchers from other disciplines. Hybrid fields like neuroethics and neuroeconomics are emerging so rapidly that neuro may well become investors' next hot prefix. (So long, nano?)
What's creating the most excitement is a project called the International Consortium for Brain Mapping, a 12-year collaborative effort to create an atlas of the human brain, based on scans of 7,000 brains from three continents. Coordinated by John Mazziotta, who runs the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA, the brain atlas is due to be released online next year. Data are being stored and analyzed on a supercomputer at UCLA with 1 petabyte of capacity--equivalent to a book with 250 billion pages. "They are laying the groundwork for all other brain studies to come," says Allan Jones, of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
The immediate benefit would be at the clinical level. The atlas would give researchers and physicians around the world access to virtual maps of how the brain functions, to compare with data they obtain from scans of their subjects or patients. By the end of next year, they should be able to project local scans free of charge into the online atlas via a computer technique called "warping." That will immediately show if some part of the brain appears to be working abnormally, compared with norms established by the scans of the 7,000 "healthy" brains. "We can do very tight matches. For example, you could look for all left-handed Chinese women in their 20s with two years of college and make a match," says Mazziotta. The atlas' scanning techniques could also be used to speed drug trials, since researchers could compare images of the brain before, during and after the administration of a new medication--and then compare those images with brains in the atlas.
But the atlas should also provide a springboard for a broader range of experiments. "Neuroimaging is more than finding the next drug for anxiety," says Allan Schore, a neuroscientist at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "We can study empathy, trust, deception, emotional communication, regulation of violence--issues that are central to human existence."
Neuroimaging is also extending into the fields of politics and commerce. Tom Freedman, a former senior adviser to the Clinton Administration, along with his brother Joshua, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, last year founded FKF Applied Research, a company that uses fMRI to study decision making. In the run-up to the presidential election, they found differences in brain activity between Bush and Kerry voters when they were shown political advertisements. The Freedmans are also studying leadership qualities, by looking at how people's brains respond to an image of someone they would be willing to follow compared with that of someone they wouldn't. Both studies could help politicians hone their campaign messages to appeal more effectively to voters.
Corporate America, meanwhile, is hoping brain scanning can help sales. "The big question for neuroeconomics is, How does the human brain make decisions like which car to buy or what to have for lunch," says Antonio Rangel, director of the neuroeconomics lab at Stanford. Research is showing that the limbic system, which governs emotions, often overrides the logical areas of the brain, suggesting that the "rational actor" theory of economics misses deeper sources of motivation rooted in unconscious feelings and interpersonal dynamics. Instead of aiming at consumers' logical decision-making processes, companies could perhaps appeal to the fuzzier side of how people feel about themselves and others around them.
Steven Quartz, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Caltech, is one of many experts moving into neuromarketing. He is helping Hollywood studios select trailers for new movies by scanning viewers as they watch a series of scenes to see which ones elicit the strongest reactions in the parts of the brain that are associated with reward expectations. Quartz, who works in partnership with market-research company Lieberman Research Worldwide, is similarly scanning consumers to identify emotional reactions to TV commercials and to products' packaging design.
Neuromarketing has its share of critics. Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group that Ralph Nader set up to monitor commercial forces in society, sent letters to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in July 2004 calling for an investigation into the practice. Commercial Alert says it fears neuromarketers could "peer into our brains" and control our buying behavior. Joshua Freedman of FKF says such fears are misplaced. "Some people view this like Frankenstein and brain control, but I think that science, by trying to understand what goes on in human brains, should be very freeing by helping people understand how they make decisions."
"This technology is unstoppable," says Stanford's Rangel. That is precisely what motivated Mazziotta to set up the atlas project in the first place: with the proliferation of scanning, there was a flood of information about the brain but nowhere to put it. "Up to now there has been no way to compare imaging work done in one lab to another, or from one person to another. We needed to have some way to organize all this data." The trick now is to figure out how best to use it.