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The sciences of the brain have made vast advances in the past two decades. A new generation of scanners has made it possible to see what’s happening inside it while it’s working. The most potent of these new technologies is functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI for short, which takes a series of snapshots of brain activity; it’s capable of showing moment by moment what parts of the brain are active when a person undertakes some task, perhaps looking at a picture or listening to an audio soundtrack. The fMRI technique is a valuable research tool, but it’s creating ethical issues for some neuroscientists, who worry that it may infringe a person’s privacy. It is suggested that the technique might provide insights into the way people respond to some product when they are thinking of buying it, a close relative of neuroeconomics. At least one US company is already using the technique to suggest to companies what people think of their products and television commercials.

Neuromarketing could be useful in finding out how a consumer experiences a product. For instance, does the brain respond first to the crunching sound of a candy bar, or to its flavor? Neuromarketers are still exploring exactly what kind of information they can tease out of test subjects with questionnaires and fMRI scans.

Newsweek International, 22 Mar. 2004

Gary Ruskin, of Commercial Alert, doesn’t buy the pitch that neuromarketing will help people. “I think they’re spinning faster than a drill bit,” he said. “It’s plain old market research taken to a new and potentially more damaging level.”

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1 Feb. 2004

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Last modified: 1 May 2004.