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'Neuromarketing' uses MRIs to influence consumers

Researchers publish a paper on the emerging field of neuromarketing, through which advertisers can use brain science to better understand human urges.

PET scan of a "normal" brain. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

It seems only natural for humans to want to understand how our own brains work. But of all the humans alive today, is anyone more likely to get excited about the science of human impulse than advertisers?

Professors at Duke University and Emory University have just published a perspective paper in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the emerging field of neuromarketing, where researchers use the tools of modern brain science to study the human brain's decision-making processes.

Neuromarketing, a term coined in 2002, casts a wide net, using various sensor and imaging technologies--i.e. functional MRI--to measure changes in brain activity as well as in heart or respiratory rates. These nuanced reactions can tell researchers precisely when a decision is made, what part of the brain is making it, and perhaps give clues as to why a particular decision is made.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely at Duke, who also produces the Arming the Donkeys (iTunes link) podcast, says these cutting edge neuro-tools could arm marketers with previously unobtainable information that consumers themselves may be unaware of about how we think, feel, react, and ultimately, consume. He lists food, entertainment, buildings, and political candidates as just a sampling of "products" this kind of marketing could apply to.

I'm no conspiracy theorist, but arming advertisers with information about human impulses makes me feel naked to my core. But then, they must know that already.