Functional MRI sheds light on purchasing decisions

November 1, 2007

The line between the present and our evolutionary past is often blurred by an internal battle raging among these different regions of the brain. Spoken words and actions, visions of the real world as well as those artificially created, trigger these brain regions with neither our knowledge nor our control.

The line between the present and our evolutionary past is often blurred by an internal battle raging among these different regions of the brain. Spoken words and actions, visions of the real world as well as those artificially created, trigger these brain regions with neither our knowledge nor our control.

Functional MRI is peeling back the layers, exposing why we do what we do, finding the realities beneath the concept of free will, helping us understand ourselves, making us more resistant-or maybe more vulnerable-to the manipulations of others.

With a 3T scanner at the University Hospital of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, radiologist Dr. Christine Born is trying to understand how the mind perceives and processes brand names. The focus of her research is on the automotive industry.

Born has found that well-known brands of cars activate positive emotional responses in our brains, that these responses occur in specific parts of the brain, and that they do not depend on the type of car, just the brand.

In research reported at the 2006 RSNA meeting and expanded upon at the European Congress of Radiology in 2007, Born studied the neural responses of 20 adult men and women who, while in the scanner, viewed a series of three-second visual stimuli containing the logos of well- and lesser known brands of car manufacturers and insurance companies. A brief question was included with each stimulus to evaluate perception of the brand. The volunteers pressed a button to respond using a four-point scale ranging from "disagree" to "agree strongly." The fMRI recorded areas of the brain responding to the different stimuli.

Strong brands activated brain areas involved in positive emotional processing and associated with self-identification and rewards, namely the inferior frontal gyrus, anterior insula, and anterior cingulate. A small cluster of neurons also fired predominantly in the left hemisphere of the precuneus.

Weak brands, however, generated a different response, causing bilateral activation in the precuneus. They produced higher levels of activation in areas of working memory and a negative emotional response.

"The brain is, for marketing experts, a kind of black box," Born said.

She and her colleagues are using fMRI to open it.

"Brain branding," as Born calls it, is on the periphery of a new kind of medical imaging that uses advanced imaging technologies to understand how we make decisions. This could have enormous implications for how we view ourselves, how we act, and how others-including corporations and governments-interact with us.

Functional MRI goes beyond the traditional means for understanding decision making, such as questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups, to gather information about how the brain responds at a very basic level. It color-codes different levels of blood oxygenation, which correlate with changes in neural activity, stripping away the filtered responses of subjects who may consciously-or unconsciously-tell investigators something other than what they really feel.

Proponents of this new age of research point to the positives that can come from understanding how we make decisions, even when that understanding is focused purely on consumerism. Born's research in Germany is aimed at better understanding the needs of people, she said, and creating markets that are more oriented toward the satisfaction of those needs.