Opinion: Mind Games

Last week the BBC reported a significant rise in the number of US patents filed for technology that can read our minds. Between 2000 and 2009, less than 400 were lodged. Last year alone, that number jumped to 1,600.

The rise of neuro-marketing has undoubtedly had an effect on the numbers, with a raft of companies springing up dedicated to the practice and merrily filing increasing numbers of patents. They use electroencephalography (EEG) — a way of recording the electrical activity of the brain by placing sensors on the scalp — to try to find out what people think about a new product or advert. But it’s not just new players entering the space — the company which holds the most patents is consumer research giant Nielsen, with 100 of them to its name.

Neuro-marketing’s increasing popularity is simultaneously fascinating and slightly terrifying. On the one hand, as a marketer, being able to better understand what people want and need is incredibly potent. With brands locked in a constant struggle to stay relevant to their customers, more knowledge is more power, and understanding exactly what’s going on inside consumer’s minds would be the Holy Grail.

But there is something ever so slightly sordid about a future where brands will be able to access our deepest and darkest thoughts. And who knows where it could lead? Currently the wide availability and low-cost of EEG hardware ensures that it remains at the forefront of brainwave monitoring technology, and its functionality is evolving rapidly.

Researchers from the University of Washington have published findings on the first ‘direct brain-to-brain interface in humans’ which uses EEG to detect and record motor imagery brain signals from one participant and transmit them via a computer to another person. The recipient’s muscles are then triggered by the sender’s thoughts. You can literally control someone else’s body with your mind.

But while it doesn’t seem likely that people would allow brands near their brainwaves, we’ve seen examples of marketing that suggest the exact opposite. Apparently the novelty of having your mind monitored (especially if there’s a chance to win a free prize) seems to offset any overly-invasive creep factor.

Recently, the Russian airline S7 offered wannabe-travellers the chance to win tickets to their dream destination — if they could focus on it for long enough.

The brand invited shoppers at a Moscow mall to try out The Imagination Machine, which used neuro-technology to monitor thought patterns of a participant wearing an EEG-sensor headset, translating the brainwaves into visuals.

We’d even let people into our minds for a cold pint on a Friday. A few years ago, beer brand Castle Lite’s created the Extra Cold Mind Reader, where prospective drinkers could don an EEG headset that was hooked up to a beer-dispensing machine. Participants were instructed to think ‘extra cold’. The longer you focused your grey cells, the more beer gets poured into your glass.

In a world where brainwaves are fair game for advertisers, can EEG deliver any real insights? Matt Wall of the Centre for Imaging Science at Hammersmith Hospital isn’t so sure. Offering a warning to those caught up in the hype, he says, ‘Any EEG researcher knows [neuro-marketing] is absolute rubbish, but they do succeed in producing fancy sciencey-looking graphs and results that appear convincing enough for the marketing people they’re selling it to.’

You don’t have to scan his brain to realise he thinks we’re a pretty credulous bunch.

(This article was originally published on contagious.com, 11/5/15).