Ever wonder what goes on inside a journalist’s head when he thinks about politics, television shows, or his boss? An article in The Atlantic, My Amygdala, My Self, tells us that and more. The intro to the piece notes that correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg was “intrigued and alarmed” by the new concept of neuromarketing, and decided to enter an fMRI machine and have his brain scanned while he viewed videos and photos on a variety of topics. The scanning was done by FKF Applied Research, known for past rankings of Super Bowl ads.
Early in the article, there’s a nice point/counterpoint on the reliability of the interpretation of fMRI data:
Still, I wondered to what degree this was truly scientific and to what degree it was 21st-century phrenology. The columnist David Brooks, who is writing a book about the brain, encouraged my skepticism when I talked to him about this. “My fear is that this is like flying over Los Angeles at night, looking at the lights in the houses and trying to guess what people are talking about at dinner,” he said.
I mentioned Brooks’s doubts to the neuroscientist [Marco] Iacoboni, who dismissed them, but with a caveat. “This is not one-to-one mapping,” he said. “You have to interpret the data within the context of the brain activation. It’s not mathematical, but it can give you an amazing understanding of what lights up different parts of the brain.” Iacoboni, a world leader in the study of mirror neurons—cells in the brain that help us process the emotions and actions of other people (his new book, Mirroring People, has much to say about the connection between autism and “broken” mirror neurons)—told me that in order for his team to sift my brain comprehensively, I would have to spend a full week undergoing fMRI screening. But even an hour inside the machine would yield a baseline understanding of my neurological predispositions.
The tone of the article is breezy, and we learn that Goldberg’s brain seems to be a bit afraid of Jimmy Carter (whose book he just panned) but finds actress Edie Falco hot. (Some guilt showed up with Falco’s picture, too, no doubt because Goldberg was aware that people were peering inside his brain while he was appreciating the actress.) Some findings were unexpected, like a seeming positive reaction to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – an individual for whom Goldberg has little sympathy. The scientists tried to force-fit an explanation involving Goldberg’s anticipation that Ahmadinejad would eventually fall from power to explain his brain’s reaction, but that example showed the limitations of current brain scan interpretation.
All in all, the article doesn’t do much to boost neuromarketing credibility, but it’s highly readable and will definitely help readers unfamiliar with the area gain a better understanding of how neuromarketing practitioners ply their trade.