Thursday, 23 September 2010

The 'buy button' in the brain


The idea that our unconscious desires can be manipulated by subliminal marketing is concerning. However the latest reincarnation of these techniques - neuromarketing has no grounding in modern neuroscience and seeks to capitalize on these fears.

Addressing an audience at the British Science Festival, Professor Nick Lee from Aston University argues that many of the claims of neuromarketing are simply “comic”. For example the idea that there is an area of the brain dedicated to our cravings.

Modern neuroscience tells us that this is simply not possible due to the way in which our brains process information. There is a fundamental difference between our experience of the world and what is actually happening in the brain.

Most people have a working assumption that there is a central location where perceptions are processed. However this working assumption is “Nearer to mediaeval witchcraft than how neuroscientists now understand the workings of the brain.”

Complicated messages from the outside world that our brains need to process are not transferred in their entirety. Instead the messages get broken up into small bits of information – in a similar way to the workings of the nervous system.

“The brain is specialized but not by complicated behaviour.” To induce ‘buying’ neuromarketing would need to influence a large number of brain regions at once. This is simply not possible with an advertisement whether we are conscious of it or not.

Neuroimaging by brain scans can only have a role in telling whether someone is conscious of a stimulus; whether they are paying attention, and what emotions the images may evoke. This knowledge is simply a more accurate extension of traditional market research.

When brain scans are involved there can be a tendency for people to believe any claims which are made. But neuromarketing is not magic. Any fears over the power of this technique “tell us more about ourselves than what neouromarketers can really do.”