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  • Michelle Niedziela, PhD

The Brain, What is it good for?

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

What does it mean to do “neuro” research? Most of the time when we think of “neuro” we picture some sort of gadget or technology on someone’s head. This is because the word itself, “neuro”, comes from the Greek “neuron” and implies that whatever “neuro-“ is attached to is relating to nerves or the nervous system, or… for most people, the brain.

Neuro-science… Neuro-marketing… Neuro Research

(Adobe Stock image left, Wikipedia EEG right)

At HCD we talk about having a large and varied toolbox consisting of methodologies from Neuroscience, Psychology and Traditional Market Research. When we talk about the tools within the neuroscience bucket of the toolbox, we often hear the questions:

What about something you put on the head? -Or- What about something to read the mind?

And the answer is, yes, we do have the capability of measuring brain activity using methods such as EEG (electroencephalography) or fNIRS (functional near infrared spectroscopy). But honestly, we do not use them as often as some of our other, more reliable and validated tools.

But first things first, there are no tools that can read a consumer’s mind. But many people do believe this. Some countries have even banned the use of neuro imaging methods in consumer work due to ethical concerns over privacy (ex, France). In reality though, the point is moot. In fact, there are all sorts of neuro-myths that have mislead many clients:

  • We only use 10% of our brains – In order to survive, we do, in fact, use all of our brain all of the time. It is constantly active regulating homeostatic systems like our heart and breathing as well as peripheral sensing of our surroundings, keeping us upright, etc. and so on.

  • 90/95% of all decision making is non-conscious – Actually we have no way of measuring if something is conscious or non-conscious, so there is no way to tell. Most non-conscious brain activity is regulatory to keep us alive. But a lot of brain activity is also conscious/cognitive. There is not true separation but rather an interaction of sensing and interpreting external data “non-consciously” and deciding how to react “consciously”.

  • There’s a buy button in the brain – No, there is no secret structure in the brain that can be influenced through marketing to force you to do anything. Purchasing decisions involve many different parts of the brain and both conscious and non-conscious activity.

  • Neuroscience tools can read minds – No. Some studies have shown that it may be possible to train a brain to react to a specific stimulus (for example seeing the same video clip repeatedly) and using brain imaging to be able to recognize patterns of activity and then going back to be able to match those patterns to that particular clip… not exactly mind reading but as close as we’ve gotten so far.

(meme generator,

There are many brain imaging methodologies out there and for the most part they are all off the shelf, meaning anyone can buy them and use them. You don’t need any special license or degree. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) are some other more advanced methodologies that have been used in consumer research. However, they are also much more expensive (millions to buy, thousands per participant to run) and require a medical clinical staff and hospital or clinical setting to use.

While these more expensive and advanced brain imaging tools are cool and provide interesting images of the brain, they may not necessarily provide the information a client is looking for. And they may also not work within the constraints of the research (budget, timing, exposure or use of products).

(fMRI images, Wikipedia)

fMRI is described as being superb for imaging specific brain structures for activity. However, it is not great temporally (meaning it doesn’t work quickly or at time locking events). It uses an estimation of blood flow to brain structures using static structural view of brain matter by measuring differences in magnetic properties between arterial (oxygen-rich) and venous (oxygen-poor) blood. Areas that are more oxygen-rich are considered more activated. fMRI is often criticized for problematic statistical analyses, often based on low-power, small-sample studies. In one criticism shared at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting and ultimately published in NeuroImage in 2009, a dead salmon was shown pictures of humans in different emotional states. The authors provided evidence, according to two different commonly used statistical tests, of areas in the dead salmon’s brain (purchased from a grocery store) suggesting meaningful activity. The study was used to highlight the need for more careful statistical analyses in fMRI research, given the large number of voxels in a typical fMRI scan.

(Back to the Future’s Doc Brown,

But perhaps a more important question when it comes to industrial consumer research is what structural activity can tell us about consumer perception and experience? Most people think that fancy tools like fMRI are capable of reading consumers minds after exposure to products, but this is far from true. Tools like fMRI are great for academic and basic research to gain insight into how different brain structures work. However, those structures turn out to have multiple functions, some of which are often contradictory (ex: the insular cortex is often cited in neuro-marketing or consumer neuroscience as a hub for emotional experience, however, many of the emotions it is associated with are contradictory – including maternal and romantic love, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, sexual arousal, disgust, aversion, unfairness, inequity, indignation, uncertainty, disbelief, social exclusion, trust, empathy, sculptural beauty, a ‘state of union with God’, and hallucinogenic states). This makes sense when you think about how complicated human cognition and brain function are when all of it takes place in such a small space (human brain has about 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections all housed in about 3 lbs of tissue).

But, fMRI is expensive anyway and EEG is more commonly used because it is cheaper and easier. So it must certainly be better, right? Maybe not. Most companies use EEG, a measure of the electrical activity of the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp. It’s been known since the late 19th century that the brain’s activity gives off electrical signals, and the first recording of that activity in humans was in 1924. EEG works by attaching recording electrodes to the scalp. It is used in clinical settings to diagnose epilepsy and monitor coma patients, and until recently (when better technologies like MRI came along) it was also used for diagnosing tumors and strokes. EEG is a popular neuroscience research method (academic) and can provide very detailed information about the brain’s activity while the participant performs some kind of specific and highly controlled task. EEG is only good for sensing the activity on the surface of the brain; activity lower down is just too far away from the electrodes on the scalp to get reliable data. Recording neural activity through the skull is like listening to an argument in the apartment below yours by pressing your ear against the floor; you might be able to hear some muffled voices, and maybe even some of the louder details, but you have no hope at all of hearing what’s happening in an apartment five floors below.

One problem is that these signals can be drowned out by electrical activity in the muscles and are sensitive to interferen