... do they oppose the federal do-not-scan list?


I can make more puns, I'm sure.

There was a great article in the 10/26/03 New York Times Magazine that introduced the term, and really showed how far MRI research has come. I knew researchers had moved into the realm of identifying areas of increased brain blood flow during meditation or thinking about romance, but I had no idea the forces of business were pushing MRI into recognizing brand awareness and self-identification.

I guess the truth is that marketing, economics, and politics are all deeply interested in how people make decisions, and so any light that neuroscientists and MRI machines can shed on this process will be pursued. Maybe this isn't NIH-fundable, but if Madison Avenue is picking up the tab, and the results are peer-reviewed, who cares?

Here are some key quotes from the article:

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...

...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.''

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.

It's just neat that we're getting better and better at characterizing the physical manifestations of thought. It's been a long time coming. I remember wondering about this when I was in grade school -- could emotions have physical effects? This was before I knew about palpitations, fight-or-flight, anorexia, lie detectors, etc.

Is an MRI lie detector far off? Or MRI psychology? We might build up a library of images to show people in the machine -- how they respond (which brain centers light up) can go on to classify their personality type, their coping mechanisms, etc. Meyers-Briggs and multiple-choice questions look primitive in comparison. Anything that requires people to think and respond is inherently less trustworthy.

How about future school quizzes? You could be shown an image of the Krebs cycle, and if you self-identify with it, that means you've studied biochem long enough and you pass.