The Brain Imaging Debate

Are the non-medical applications of fMRI and other brain imaging technology overrated, or are we seeing the birth of a major new field of study? Ofri Ilani and Yotam Feldman of Haaretz have written a lengthy survey piece that starts by describing some of the current and planned brain imaging centers in Israel and segues into a lengthy and detailed discussion of the pros and cons of neuroimaging technology. There is even a section on neuromarketing:

Prof. Rafael Malach of the Department of Neurobiology at Weizmann, one of the senior advisors involved in the study, called fMRI brain imaging a “revolution which in the long term will affect both advertisers and consumers.” The other senior advisor, Prof. Jacob Hornik, former chairman of the marketing department of TAU’s Faculty of Management, noted that in this way, “we will be able to develop a revolutionary marketing science called ‘neuro-marketing.’” [From Haaretz - Of Two Minds.]

One of the critiques of neuroimaging echoed many times in the article is that it is expensive, that we don’t really understand what we are seeing, and often the conclusions are readily determined by other means. Another critique is that viewers are seduced by the colorful images and weight them more heavily than other data:

Judy Illes, founder of the neuroethics center at Stanford, uses the term “neuro-realism” to describe the exaggerated tangibility attributed to the images derived from fMRI. Researchers, she explains during a telephone interview, think hatred is more real after they see brain imaging of people who experience it. Such images were never seen before, and of course they are very powerful and convincing. On the other hand, Illes notes, one sometimes has to ask what relevance these findings have for the real world: People interact in society with other people; they do not function while lying in a brain scanner in an isolated environment.”

The authors review brain studies that look at political leanings, charitable giving, and some unexpected topics:

Various uses that different bodies will potentially be able to make of the new imaging techniques are beginning to emerge. A Utah-based organization called the Lighted Candle Society, whose goal is to “promote moral values,” wants to use fMRI to prove that pornography is addictive. Researchers from the University of Arizona, who examined mechanisms of dopamine secretion during learning, concluded that tests of the levels of the neural mediators in the brain will make it possible to identify children who are suited for different educational environments.

Lest one think that in the next few years Harvard et al will add an fMRI scan to their admissions process, the article dismisses that prospect as implausible due to the complex and multi-dimensional aspects of educational success.

The article is long, but is balanced and provides a wealth of commentary and detail. It’s the most thoughtful presentation I’ve seen on this topic in the general press. If you want to get up to speed on neuroimaging and what both detractors and advocates are saying about its non-medical applications, read it: Of Two Minds.

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Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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