Brains and Brands – Introducing Gayle Marks, Media Psychophysiologist at HCD Research

I joined HCD Research as chief research methodologist in June and quickly began travelling to sites across the U.S. to meet with current and potential clients to discuss HCD’s methodologies.  First and foremost, when I meet potential clients I emphasize that with each new project HCD Research identifies the best methodology to address the research questions at hand.  That means, we tailor our methodology for each project instead of utilizing one set of tools for everything.  We don’t use a hammer when we need a screwdriver.  Meeting new clients I also provide a brief personal biography, which in part, also helps clients understand how our company differs from our competitors.  For instance, like our scientific advisor, Paul Bolls, I received my Ph.D. in Mass Communications from Indiana University where I was trained at the Institute for Communication Research to use psychophysiological methods. “What’s that?” you ask.  I will explain much more momentarily, since defining psychophysiology is the primary intent of this blog post.  Like Paul, I also have a background in cognitive science and neuroscience focusing on cognition, memory, emotion and motivation.  Prior to coming on board with HCD I taught and conducted research in academia.  Namely my research has focused on information and emotional processing of media messages about health—sexual health, mental illness, cancer, and nutrition. Thus, at HCD we are not comprised of neuroscientists or engineers trying to make sense of people’s responses to media and consumer behaviors.  Instead, we are a team of communication experts with a vast knowledge of media, marketing, and psychology; utilizing tools from these and other interdisciplinary areas to understand and explain how people think and feel about media messages and consumer products in various contexts and environments. 

Since we are a market research company trying to understand consumers’ thoughts and feelings doesn’t that make us neuromarketers?  Not necessarily.  At HCD we often pair biometric data collection with traditional marketing tools, such as in-depth-interviews. In my meetings with clients, I often use the term psychophysiology, rather than biometrics.  “Biometrics” means taking biological measurements, which is one of our methodologies, however, the term inherently neglects one of the primary components of our research—understanding the interactions between psychological and physiological responses, or, the brain and body interactions driving behaviors.   And, unlike psychophysiology, neuromarketing is a recently coined buzz word getting some backlash as large companies begin to realize that brain images and brain waves are not a marketing panacea.  (I will explore some of these issues among others in future blogs). 

Psychophysiology is not a new field.  For a very long time, perhaps even since we lived in caves, people have been interested in how the brain and body interact and their relationships to mind, consciousness, thinking, and feeling.  In Pschophysiology: Human Behavior & Physiological Response (2007) John L. Andreassi provides anthropological evidence that hundreds of cave dwellers may have had brain surgery—for what reason we do not know but he surmises it may have been to relieve headaches or to release evil spirits believed to be in the brain and causing socially undesirable behavior; surgery for this purpose did occur in the middle ages.   Andreassi writes that even early Egyptian papyri, perhaps as early as 3000 B.C., contain records of the relationship between the brain and mental activities, such as head injury leading to speech difficulties and Egyptian writing, from 1500 B.C., theorizes that the heart is the center of mental activities, like memory and consciousness.  Greek philosophers also addressed the relatedness of the brain and body and noted, but did not focus on, their relationship to human behavior.   Hippocrates, the father of medicine, believed that excessive amounts of bodily fluids, or humours, would affect behavior. Aristotle, unlike his predecessor, Plato, taught that the brain and soul, or mental activities that lead to behavior, are not separate entities, but are the same (Andreassi, 2007).  Although significant advances in anatomy and physiology have emerged since Aristotle, and many of the previously held beliefs about the mental processes and the body have been discounted, this tenet is still held by psychophysiologists.   The predominant theory in contemporary cognitive science is that humans are organisms made up of an embodied brain.  That means that when something happens to the body it is reflected with nervous system activity both in the body and in the brain.  If you touch a hot plate not only will your fingers feel burned but areas of the brain will respond with electrical and chemical activity.  A theory of an embodied brain also posits that activity in the brain will produce bodily activity.  If the motor cortex is active in the brain then the body is either preparing to move or already moving.  Psychophysiology, as John T. Caccioppo, Louis G. Tassinary, and Gary Bernston write in the introduction to the Handbook of Psychophysiology (2007), the seminal textbook in the area, is not only focused on what is happening physiologically, but what is happening socially, culturally, or environmentally that influence us psychologically, which in turn results in bodily responses.  They write:

The primary distinctions between psychophysiology and behavioral neuroscience are the focus of the former on the higher cognitive processes and the interest in relating these higher cognitive processes to the integration of central and peripheral processes.  Among the complexity added when moving from physiology to psychophysiology are the capacity by symbolic systems of representation (e.g., language, mathematics), to communicate and to reflect on history and experience; and social and cultural influences on physiological response and behavior…

Thus, psychophysiology can be defined as the scientific study of social, psychological, and behavioral phenomena as related to and revealed through physiological principles and events in functional organisms.  Thus, psychophysiology is not categorically different from behavioral neuroscience, but rather there is currently a greater emphasis in psychophysiology on higher cognitive processes and relating these higher cognitive processes to the integration of central and peripheral [nervous system] processes.

Psychophysiologists,  then, are able to observe and record physiological responses from the body such as heart rate, skin conductance (electrical activity recorded from the skin and influenced by sweat), and muscle movements,  and connect those responses to mental/cognitive responses such as attention, arousal, and emotion, to name a few.  These are some of the measures we use at HCD. Our research is based a long history of study from the fields of anatomy, physiology, and psychology.  The first organization specifically devoted to the study of psychophysiology emerged in the late 1950’s, the Society for Psychophysiological Research (SPR).  Publications, such as the journal Psychophysiology followed soon thereafter.  Now hundreds of psychophysiology labs are set up around the world.  Technological advances, too, are making recording biological systems easier, faster, and more mobile.   At HCD, when we conduct research using psychophysiological methods we are using peer-reviewed, published methods and time-tested, valid, reliable technology.  

This blog is the first in a series.  I will discuss psychophysiological recording and cognitive processing more in the future.  I will also blog from SPR’s annual conference in Florence, Italy the first week of October, in order to present you with highlights from the latest research. Caio!