In a development sure to fascinate those interested in neuromarketing, neuroeconomics, and just about any other brain science-related discipline, neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico have developed a technique that can reliably detect a single thought forming in an individual’s brain. From Watching a Single Thought Form in the Brain in the MIT Technology Review:

“This could open up a whole new dimension of how fMRI could be used,” says Peter Bandettini, director of the fMRI core facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures the amount of blood flow to different parts of the brain, thereby indicating which brain areas are most active. Imaging the brain while someone performs mental tasks, such as remembering words or doing math, gives insight into the parts of the brain crucial for these cognitive processes. But brain activity is very “noisy,” meaning scientists must distinguish the relevant neural signals from background activity, which might come from a subject’s breathing, moving, or even daydreaming. To detect brain activity associated with a specific task, then, most fMRI studies average brain scans from repeated tests in dozens of people.

Stefan Posse and colleagues at the University of New Mexico are developing new ways to collect and analyze fMRI data that allow them to detect brain activity from a single thought. They’ve created their highly sensitive imaging methods by taking more pictures in a shorter amount of time and by developing new algorithms to integrate those images and to reduce background noise.

The initial study involved asking subjects to think of a word, and observing the activity in Broca’s area, a brain area responsible for language. They found that they could identify the “thought” in single trials, compared to past work that would require comparing multiple trials to separate the relevant activity from other brain activity.

From a neuromarketing standpoint, the “single trial” aspect is particularly important, as a subject’s reaction to an advertisement, for instance, might well change with repeated viewings. Being able to reliably capture elements of a first impression could be quite useful. Of course, if the researchers make progress toward their goal of deconstructing entire thought processes into smaller components, the implications for understanding how people think, how they make decisions, etc. would be enormous.

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