Why do brain scans dissolve our critical faculties?

One writer has remarked that “A brain scan is a fast-acting solvent of our critical faculties” and, in the age of fMRI and EEG, and it’s easy for marketers to get bamboozled by our technological capacity to “look into the brain”.  I believe this approach (which Raymond Tallis calls “neuromania”) is underpinned by a number of fallacies, which have diverted us from looking at the things that matter, the things that make us human – particularly culture, language and metaphor.

The “We Are Our Brain” Fallacy: If we can’t see something in the brain it doesn’t exist

We can’t “see” consciousness, sociality, identity or memory in the brain, all of which exist. The fact is that the meaning and significance of brands exist outside the brain – in the culture that humans create – and while a neuroscientist might reduce a brand to its neural correlates, that may be no more helpful than  reducing the Mona Lisa to the paint molecules that make it up.

The Sameness Fallacy: if the same part of the brain ‘lights up’ when we think about one thing as when we think about another, the two mental states must be the same

In Buy.Ology, Martin Lindstrom reports an experiment where religious zealots and brand loyalists’ brains were scanned whilst they each contemplated the objects of their devotion: “Bottom line, there was no discernible difference between the way subjects’ brains reacted to powerful brands and the way they reacted to religious icons and figures…” So what? Of course there are some similarities between religion and brands, but I don’t know anyone who worships at the Church of Apple, goes to Apple Heaven when they die, or believes Steve Jobs is a deity.

The Freedom Fallacy: Because brain activity may sometimes be observed before we’re aware of making a decision, our free will is an illusion – our brains are in control

While this could be subject of an extensive philosophical debate, people can definitely control or limit their instinctive response to a situation: “free won’t” instead of “free will”, as it were. For example, deciding not to hit or not to kiss someone (inappropriately).We can’t control how we ‘feel’ about a brand, but we can control our subsequent (purchase) behaviour.

Which brings us to…

The Automatic Pilot Fallacy: Our unconscious/emotions compel us to act (irrationally) instead of working with our rational faculties to facilitate better decision making

Almost no one now argues these days that man is autonomous, completely free or consistently rational, yet that doesn’t make us robots or zombies.We have learned (and have evolved) to live with our emotions, adopting (cognitive) controls that stop us from obeying their every dictate. – the exception being in situations of “fight or flight”.  Not much of that at the supermarket fixture!

The Reductionist Fallacy: We can locate reason and emotion in specific parts of the brain.

Actually, at the higher levels of cognition, the brain is not that modular, and neither emotions nor reasoning reside exclusively in specific locations within it. The areas that control emotions and reasoning are located side by side in the brain and constantly interact. EEG, in particular, is very poor at locating activity within the brain. No one has come close to locating a ‘buy button’ in the brain.

The All in the Head Fallacy: Thought, feeling and cognition are ‘all in the brain’ and not outside it.

What it means to be human is to have relationships with others – to have cognitive and emotional connections. We part of a cognitive community of minds, and it is through that community that we create culture and language. Language is the most obvious expression of our shared consciousness, yet it is a late comer in the evolution of collective consciousness.

First we started with episodic memory – of specific events that they apply unthinkingly to present circumstances –  then had nonverbal language (signs, gesture and mime). Next was non-verbal representation and metaphor – both key means of communicating emotion. Finally symbols and language came along.

Metaphors may seem to be linguistic, but they are representational – linking something we want to convey with a commonly understood experience. And since they pre-date language, it makes sense that metaphors might enable us to get closer to our emotions. That’s why my company’s Metaphorix® approach (to measuring emotion) draws heavily on Primary Metaphors, which are present in almost every language and every culture.




2 thoughts on “Why do brain scans dissolve our critical faculties?

  1. Phil Barden

    David – I don’t think anyone’s saying that we shop like zombies. However, you should take a look at the following study which shows that, for favourite brands, the purchase decision DOES happen ‘automatically’, with many of the cognitive reflective brain areas/processes shut down for that decision compared with when we’re deciding between other brands (still within the so-called ‘consideration set’). Automatic, intuitive, reflexive processing is favoured by the brain as it consumes less energy – so the autopilot does govern many decisions in our daily lives, including purchases.

    Deppe, M.; Schwindt, W.; Kugel, H.; Plassmann, H.; Kenning, P. (2005): Non-linear responses within the medial prefrontal cortex reveal when specific implicit information influences economic decision-making, in: Journal of Neuroimaging, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2005, pp. 171-183

    1. David Penn's blog Post author


      I agree and have said as much on numerous occasions. The point I’m making is that automaticity can be disrupted by new information – particularly at point of sale. In Kahnemanese, what a marketer can do is to move (or jolt) the mode of decision making from System 1 to System 2, i.e. from unconscious to conscious, reflective.


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