Friday, June 13, 2008

My that's a big fMRI you have there

For some time now (about a decade and a half to be more precise) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been transforming neuroscience.

As the tools have gotten cheaper and more widely distributed, some have applied them in ways that purport to 'see' not just what's going on in the brain, but--by extension--the mind. One outfit even specializes in fMRI for marketers.

And what marketer wouldn't like to know what's going on in their target's mind? "Hmm, the fMRI shows that the Coke logo stimulates the same part of the mind as does the image of a koala bear...that must be because Coke is comforting, familiar, and soft. We should use fluffy koala bears in our adverts! Science tells us so!"

Of course, that's not or otherwise. And the folks at Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have an interesting article (requires membership) challenging some of the approaches to using these tools...not because they are Luddites, but because some of the inferences made in the name of science turn out to be based on, well, not particularly scientifically rigorous interpretation.

Such as?

Such as the resolution of the images themselves: fMRI machines are unable to capture details smaller than a few millimeters on a side...that area contains millions of neurons.

Such as what is actually being resolved: the imagery tends to show the affect of blood flow...a proxy for the actual activity of the neurons themselves.

Such as control for other causal factors: there is still much to be known about the linkage of moral, emotional, and physical concepts in regions of the brain.

So what?

An fMRI picture may paint a million words (it is the new millenium afterall)...but what those words tell us is unlikely to be as simple as a tagline or market segment profile. Rather, the more complete picture of a prospect will likely come from what the prospect tells us directly through their responses to inquiries or through their observable behavior in the marketplace... approaches for testing hypotheses that marketers and market researchers know well.

For now, it would appear that our fMRI tools offer marketers only an unimproved means to an unimproved end.

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