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SCIENCE KNOWS WHAT YOU THINK.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT SCIENCE?

Do you know what neuro-marketing is?

The answer to this question depends largely on where you sit: if you are a scientist or a businessman, you will probably know that neuro-marketing is one of the latest trends in neuroscience that, in the attempt of growing the already nourished number of applied research projects within the Academia, is collaborating with business companies (and sometimes with the government), in order to deepen the understanding of consumers’ (or audiences’) insights.

If you are a common mortal, though, you won’t probably even know the existence of this inter-discipline — so it is unlikely that you can tell how it works. Therefore, let’s keep it simple: you know those traditional market researches, where you sit in a room with other 10–20 sweating people, altogether you try to watch a commercial and, afterwards, you are asked by a researcher if you would purchase the product advertised — and you are probably asked also to fill out a questionnaire long half the length of the Deuteronomy?

Well, forget it: now researchers have the answers, without even asking you the questions.

Yes, because nowadays, whether you watch an AD on the screen, or shop at the supermarket while buying your USDA fruit and vegetables, know that you cannot cheat anymore: your brain does not lie.

Science knows what you like and how to sell it, to your wallet and to you mind (terrific or amazing?).

How? That’s the “wet” part: during any experience of a marketing stimulus -like the above-mentioned ones — an equipe of neuroscientists, biologists and electronic engineers will put a ton of gel on your head and apply electrodes on it, in order to scan your brain with an electroencephalogram (NB: the same used in the jails, during the machine truth test). Meanwhile, they will track your eye movements in order to see where and what you are looking at, during the pre-purchasing and purchasing experience (perhaps you are visualizing the label? If yes, then the brand did a great job!), will assess your heart rhythm, as well as your skin reaction.

“You’re all set”: every little oscillation of your body and brain is measured with the most cutting-edge technologies (around 25.000 euros of devices will be over your clothes) and will record all your biological and cerebral activity so as to understand what you like…and what you don’t.

If you are lucky enough, though, you will just be put in a tube and have your body scanned while comfortably sitting on a sort of tanning bed, inside the last model of MRI or fMRI (functional- magnetic resonance imaging) — again, yes: the ones that MD use to check if you have a brain tumor.

Over the last decade, the emergence of neuromarketing has advanced conventional marketing research, illuminating how unconscious responses and emotions impact consumers’ perceptions and decision-making processes. Neuromarketing employs the concepts and techniques of cognitive neuroscience — that is, the investigation of the brain mechanisms underlying cognition. By concentrating on the neural substrates of psychological processes and their behavioral expressions, this new field of research seeks to formulate, implement, and evaluate marketing plans and actions. Neuromarketing is based on two postulations: first, that individual sensory and motor systems can be identified in specific networks of brain cells; and second, that observing these networks can reveal the unconscious or emotional characteristics of consumer decision making that conventional qualitative and quantitative research methods cannot.[1]

However, neuroscience does not serve only the mere art of selling a product to the right person, but also the one that tries to understand how that person makes his/her purchasing decisions: in the attempt of combining economics, neuroscience, and psychology, Neuroeconomics undermines the classical theories according to which buyers would logically evaluate the risk inside the purchase a product, and thus rationally optimize their utility. Behavioral economics, in fact, suggests that people would not choose their brands or products in a rational manner, but rather they would be driven by emotions in doing that: insight into the mechanisms driving individuals would help to better predict the future of economies.

Some Italian scholars, though (Mileti, A., Guido, G., & Prete, M. I., 2016), argue that these fields of study would be already outdated: today the new frontier is the application of nanotechnologies to them: namely, Nanomarketing. In fact, nanomarketing would raise the bar in neuroscience applied research, “making it possible to: carry out noninvasive and nonintrusive experiments in shopping places; monitor consumers’ mental processes in real time; combine various technologies to corroborate the results obtained by different neuroscientific tools; associate neurophysiological field indicators with laboratory neuroimaging results; and highlight ethical issues raised by the use of these novel, portable and easy-to-use nanodevices”. Yes: today, all of us can actually look like Tom Cruise in “Minority Report”.

So, summarizing, research data in Consumer Neuroscience (neuroscience applied to consumer studies, i.e. economics and marketing) is gathered by monitoring certain biometrics, including:

- Eye tracking: small cameras that can track eye movement and eye focus, helping researchers understand which parts of an advertisement are most visually appealing to test subjects.

- Facial coding: subjects’ facial expressions are analyzed to learn more about certain responses to a product or advertisement, including frustration, happiness, and more.

- Galvanic skin response and electrodermal activity: this means measuring the sweat gland excretions associated with physiological arousal, and the electrodermal activity — which is associated with high or low levels of excitement and engagement.

- Electroencephalography (EEG) — that measures electrical activity in the brain, which is associated with increased or reduced focus and / or excitement.

- MRI- that makes an anatomic representation of the brain by making use of magnets: an MRI scanner is used to measure the blood oxygen level, which can give an indication of increased brain activity in certain regions.

- fMRI: (a sub area of MRI, and also the latest and most popular brain imaging method in the field of neuro-marketing used for investigation of brain activation differences); the ‘f’ stands for ‘functional’, indicating that it is a “process” instead of a snapshot (like in the MRI) being observed. Simply speaking, it displays the blood flow of oxygen-rich blood to different regions in the brain in order to explore the human behavior.

- Nanotechnologies: commonly understood as the “design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanometre scale” (The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, 2004).

Confused among all this terms? You are not alone.

Confusion is a common reaction to concepts that have been defined by the same Academia as floating balloons of jargon, or “the odd couple” (in fact, neuro-marketing and neuro-economics have been always quoted in pair).

But.. the pleasure that this lovers finds in each other is quickly tarnished by the disapproval of friends and family, who refuse to welcome the scandalous couple in their homes: the scientific community starts to point the fingers and call them “pseudo-sciences”[2].

Academics are unsure of whether to kiss them or kill them.

The debate is alive also in the press: from the first shame attempt of theorizing the existence of a “buy button in the brain” (by Sandra Blackeslee, on the New York Times online magazine of 21 October 2004[3]), to a couple of years later, when John Cassidy definitely lit its fire with an article called, Mind Games — What neuroeconomics tells us about money and the brain, featured on The New Yorker in 2006. Running well over 5,000 words, this article includes first-hand interviews with neuroeconomics luminaries, as well as the author own experience inside an fMRI machine. One of the many interesting quotes in the article is from David Laibson, a Harvard professor and consumer behavior expert: “Natural science has moved ahead by studying progressively smaller units. Physicists started out studying the stars, then they looked at objects, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on. My sense is that economics is going to follow the same path. Forty years ago, it was mainly about large-scale phenomena, like inflation and unemployment. More recently, there has been a lot of focus on individual decision-making. I think the time has now come to go beyond the individual and look at the inputs to individual decision-making. That is what we do in neuroeconomics”.

If your bet is that the list of disciplines that take advantage of neuroscience is over, though, you would lose it: the article “Neuropolitics, Where Campaigns Try to Read Your Mind”, by Kevin Randall (featured on the New York Times on November 3rd, 2015) contains probably the most awkward wording ever with the suffix -neuro: Neuro-Politics. Here, with candor, politicians acknowledge the use of neuro-marketing in their campaigns’ assessments: “In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign and his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, employed tools to measure voters’ brain waves, skin arousal, heart rates and facial expressions during the 2012 presidential campaign. More recently, the party has been using facial coding to help pick its best candidates, one consultant says. Some officials even speak openly about their embrace of neuropolitical techniques, and not just for campaigning, but for governing as well. “In my government, we have utilized a variety of research tools and opinion studies to evaluate the efficacy of our governmental programs, communications and messages,” said Francisco Olvera Ruiz, the governor of the Mexican state of Hidalgo and a governing party member. “Neuroscience research,” he added, is “especially valuable because it has allowed us to discover with more precision and objectivity what people think, perceive and feel.”

Before that, the New York Times had published another couple of articles about neuromarketing: the first is “Making Ads That Whisper to the Brain” — which deals with the already mentioned application of neuromarketing to advertising effectiveness — and “The Secret of Neuromarketing: Go for the Pain”, that actually opens a Pandora’s box, not only because it lists the Golden rules of the neuromarketer, but since it unveils the dogma “No Pain, No Gain” — which is something that marketing actually borrowed from the sport, even though here the meaning is different: if the customers have a pain ( a problem to solve, basically), then the product will be a relief for them (a solution? Or a palliative?).

The same pain that Nicola Twilley, on the New Yorker of the 2nd July, 2018 (The Neuroscience of Pain- Brain imaging is illuminating the neural patterns behind pain’s infinite variety) describes in her experience with a neuroscientist whose research objective was to evaluate pain with an MRI: “During the next couple of hours, I had needles repeatedly stuck into my ankle and the fleshy part of my calf. A hot-water bottle applied to my capsaicin patch inflicted the perceptual equivalent of a third-degree burn, after which a cooling pack placed on the same spot brought tear-inducing relief. Each time Tracey and her team prepared to observe a new slice of my brain, the machine beeped, and a small screen in front of my face flashed the word “Ready” in white lettering on a black background. After each assault, I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 0 to 10”

In neuromarketing, so, things turn in “No Brain, No Pain, No Gain”.[4] But the only gain of this motto is going to be the companies’ one.

On June 19th of 5 years ago (2013), Gary Marcus’s pen (a professor of cognitive science at N.Y.U.) brought again the topic of Consumer Neuroscience on the New Yorker, in his piece “The Problem with the Neuroscience Backlash”; for the first time, close to the suffixes -marketing and -economics, we see something that should actually protect the consumers, rather than just study them: the Neuro-Law. Namely, the latter is a consequence of the two above-mentioned disciplines, since practitioners in this field seek to address not only the descriptive and predictive issues of how neuroscience is and will be used in the legal system, but also the normative issues of how neuroscience should and should not be used.

Undeniably, today you can have the opportunity of trying the thrill given by the main methods of the so-called “bio-imaging” techniques (literally: biological imaging, as in the techniques that allow to figure out what happens in your body and/or brain in reaction to certain stimuli) while protected by the law — or help the law itself: if you are a criminal, science will definitely save the world by studying what you think!

Do you trust in this philanthropic nature of science? I do. And I don’t.

In the end, Consumer Neuroscience is not that “bad guy”: recently, public administrations have understood the importance of bio imaging techniques for improving the effectiveness of their public polices, especially in Europe, where neuroscience plays a big role in evaluating the quality of anti-smoking and anti-alcoholism Public Service Announcements: an example is the project SmokeFreeBrain.

Local governments are in fact required to disseminate information concerning risks to public health and to promote messages that encourage healthier life style options to improve public health and reduce the huge burden placed on state spending from state subsidized health care in countries with social security systems such as Germany, the UK and France. In this context, Public Service Announcements (PSAs) are non-commercial advertisements intended to achieve attitudinal and behavioural changes in the general public (such as protecting the environment and safer driving). When effective, PSAs are of substantial benefit to public welfare, and the aim of the project is to improve their efficacy by using evaluation methods borrowed from applied neuroscience.[5]

In this case and other ones (as the MOTO project: http://www.moto-project.eu/ and the STRESS project, http://www.stressproject.eu/ , aimed at improving the performance of personnel in the air traffic control field), Consumer Neuroscience helps preventing deaths. Which was the same objective of the White House, when it launched the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). Quoting Wikipedia: “The project is a collaborative, public-private research initiative announced by the Obama administration on April 2, 2013, with the goal of supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function. This activity is a Grand Challenge focused on revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, and was developed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as part of a broader White House Neuroscience Initiative. Inspired by the Human Genome Project, BRAIN aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).”

Public-private research initiative — let me underline it.

In fact, “many participants come from the public and private sectors, including agencies of the federal government agencies, private industry leaders, philanthropists, nonprofit organizations, foundations, colleges and universities, and more” (from the official website of the project).

Who are these philanthropic private partners, whose declared aim is — as written in the “Mission” session of the website — “To help bring safe and effective products to patients and consumers, and enhance the transparency of the regulatory landscape to promote the advancement of safe neurological medical device”?

Among the others, there is the omnipresent Google and, of course, a representative of the powerful pharmaceutical industry (only one, for God’s sake: we don’t want to collaborate with competitors for humanitarian scopes, do we?): GlaxoSmithKline.

Fair enough: “Research needs money, man!”

Hence, the industry presence: is it mere Corporate Social Responsibility (that is, when a company takes care of the social problems) or a way for studying our brain diseases so that companies can cure us better with their medicines?

That’s an old dilemma, and also an old story. Not a bad one, not a good one: just old. And it comes to the fore again and again: this time, thanks to the reliable neuroscience.

Reliable, sure. And expensive, too. Still, we have had the proof that today there can probably be an industry sponsored-free science.

In which countries, though?


[1] Mileti, A., Guido, G., & Prete, M. I. (2016). Nanomarketing: a new frontier for neuromarketing. Psychology & Marketing, 33(8), 664–674.

[2] Tafur, J. “The farce of neuromarketing”. E-ikon (2),2–9

[3] Is there a ‘buy button’ in the brain? Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/21/health/is-there-a-buy-button-in-the-brain.html (Accessed: 06/25/2018)

[4] Nyoni, T., & Bonga, W. G. (2017). Neuromarketing: No Brain, No Gain!.

[5] http://smokefreebrain.eu/public-service-announcement/