Brain Scan Mind Reading 70% Accurate


brain-fmri_1The promise of neuromarketing has been the tantalizing possibility that marketers would be able to understand what consumers really think, not just what they say. We’re a long way from effective mind reading, but researchers have taken a step in that direction by predicting the intention of subjects with reasonable accuracy.

Now researchers have been able to decode these secret intentions from patterns of their brain activity. They let subjects freely and covertly choose between two possible tasks – to either add or subtract two numbers. They were then asked to hold in mind their intention for a while until the relevant numbers were presented on a screen. The researchers were able to recognize the subjects intentions with 70% accuracy based alone on their brain activity – even before the participants had seen the numbers and had started to perform the calculation.

That quote is from a press release from the Max Planck Institute, Revealing secret intentions in the brain. The BBC also covered the story:

The researchers, led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig, asked people to hold their mathematical decision in their minds until they were shown two numbers on a computer screen. The fMRI scans monitored brain activity for the few seconds they were thinking about their sum, and it was on this information that the scientists made their predictions…

Dr John-Dylan Haynes, who led the research, said: “It has been previously assumed that freely selected plans might be stored in the middle regions of the prefrontal cortex, whereas plans following external instructions could be stored on the surface of the brain. “We were able to confirm this theory in our experiments.”

He added: “The experiments show that intentions are not encoded in single neurons but in a whole spatial pattern of brain activity.” (From BBC News: Brain scan ‘can read your mind’)

This reinforces work we reported on in Brain Scans Predict Buying Behavior. In each case, researchers have been able to predict the behavior of subjects based solely on brain scans. This is still a crude tool, to be sure. Here, the researchers found their predictive ability to be about 70%, and in the buying prediction research the scans worked about as well as self-reporting by the subjects. While neither of these is a ringing endorsement of the accuracy of neuromarketing predictions, both studies offer grounds for optimism. As the temporal and spatial resolution of fMRI and other brain scan techniques improves, and as neuroscientists and marketers develop better techniques for interpreting the data, it seems likely that the predictive power of the scans will improve greatly.

Not surprisingly, there has been considerable reaction among bloggers – much of it Orwellian speculation. In a later post, we’ll sum up some of the better contributions on the topic.

  1. BenP says

    Maybe it’s not Orwellian speculation, but there’s some ethicals issues from that kind of research !

  2. NeuroGuy says

    I think the question of ethics mainly arises if you assume that somehow marketers will be able to manipulate people into doing things. I don’t see neuroscience as greatly increasing the manipulative power of marketing (some of which is quite successful without any neuro input).

  3. Anthony says

    I think that a lot of skilled marketeers can already predict what the majority of people will do when faced with a sales page or an offer, and to be honest we are pretty predictable already so i can not see why there would be any issues regarding ethics. There is a reason why the term “herd mentality” applies 90 percent of the time:)

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Anthony, I suspect you are correct that a good marketer might have score as well as the fMRI on a test of, say, “Would you buy this for $10?” The fMRI, however, may offer more subtle insights into emotional response, internal conflicts, etc.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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