Biomedical Engineering Electrical Engineering Health & Medicine Issue I Lifestyle Volume XV

How Companies Fulfill Your Deepest Desires: Neuromarketing and the MRI

About the Author: Chris Daskalos

Chris Daskalos is a senior at the University of Southern California, majoring in Policy, Management, and Planning with a minor in Applied Computer Security. He wishes to pursue a career in cybersecurity legislation to prevent over censoring the internet.

Mad Men, the American Movie Channel’s award winning TV show, transports viewers to the sexy and fast paced marketing world of Don Draper in 1960’s New York. Today, that world is getting sexier and faster with the advancement of neuromarketing. By using MRI and EEG machines on subjects exposed to products or advertisements, companies are keeping a competitive edge to slash competitors. On the one hand, many scientists support the use of MRI and EEG machines for neuromarketing purposes as neuroscience research is simultaneously propelled. On the other hand, many critics of neuromarketing argue that this developing industry crosses many moral boundaries and should cease immediately. Both biology and technology support the development of neuromarketing, as well as reveal potential societal benefits and nuisances created in the process.

How Neuromarketing Works

Neuromarketing is the combination of “psychology, neuroscience, and economics” with the main goal of finding a consumer’s “buy button” and learning how to push it [1]. Neuromarketing companies achieve this by using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and EEG (Electroencephalogra​phy) machines on subjects exposed to products or advertisements to pinpoint brain activity. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Coca Cola, to name a few, all use neuromarketing to gain an advantage over their competitors.


Neuromarketing is a field quickly developing hand in hand with neuroscience. The more we learn about the specific portions of the brain and the functions they control, the better we can market our products. A major discovery in the field of neuroscience occurred in 1848 when 25 year old Phineas Gage was impaled through the brain by a large iron rod while working on the railroad as seen in Fig. 1 [2]. Surprisingly enough, Phineas survived even though much of the left frontal lobe of his brain was destroyed. After this accident, those who knew Phineas began calling him “no longer Gage” to describe the major change in his personality. The Smithsonian Magazine reported that Phineas’ doctor stated “after the accident Phineas could not stick to plans, uttered the grossest profanity and showed little deference for his fellows” [3]. This is the most famous accident in the field of neuroscience because it revealed that specific portions of the brain control specific human functions and not all functions are necessary to live [3].

Van Horn JD, Irimia A, Torgerson CM, Chambers MC, Kikinis R, et al./Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Depiction of a Gage skull.

Over the next 150 years, neuroscientists studied the phenomenon Phineas’ accident revealed and eventually mapped out the brain, describing functions each portion controlled. Although much more research is needed to completely understand the brain, a few portions particularly important to neuromarketing are the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. Research shows that the amygdala corresponds to emotional memory [4]. The hypothalamus is known to control “motivational states including hunger, appetite and food intake, and everything to do with the concept of pleasure including satisfaction, comfort and creative activities” [5]. The hippocampus acts as a “memory indexer” placing some memories into long term storage and helping to retrieve them when needed [6]. These areas of the brain can be seen in Fig. 2 [7].

lifesciencedb/Wikime​dia Commons
Figure 2: 3D model of the brain.

Good neuromarketing is successful when these portions of the brain are active because that means the product or advertisement is associated with emotion, motivational states such as hunger, and ultimately, placed into the long term memory.


Neuromarketing relies on two pieces of equipment: the MRI machine and the EEG machine.
The MRI machine was developed to create three dimensional maps of the body as seen in Fig. 3 [8]. To produce these maps the MRI machine is tuned to detect the presence of hydrogen in the body [9]. Since hydrogen is present in all bodily tissues in the form of H2O, the MRI will give us a map of hydrogen density in the area of the body we are imaging [9]. When the person enters the MRI machine, a powerful magnet causes all hydrogen atoms in the body to realign themselves with the magnetic field created by the MRI machine. Since hydrogen has one proton, that proton is unhappy that it is forced to match the magnetic field of the MRI rather than rest in its natural position. The moment the MRI’s magnetic field is turned off the hydrogen atom will flip back to its original position. As this happens, it expels energy as a tiny magnetic field. When all the hydrogen atoms in a human body flip back to their natural position, they all release tiny magnetic fields. All of these magnetic fields are captured by the MRI machine and turned into a three dimensional map of the body.
The MRI machine creates a hydrogen density map [9]. The more tiny magnetic fields coming from an area means that area has more hydrogen atoms present at that time. Simply by determining where more hydrogen atoms are located, and where fewer hydrogen atoms are located, scientists can determine what type of bodily tissue or fluid exists. For example, scientists can determine the difference between fat and muscle tissue based on hydrogen density. When imaging the brain for neuromarketing experiments, scientists first take an image of the brain at rest, and then an image of the brain while shown a product or an advertisement. The second image will show certain portions of the brain containing more hydrogen atoms than the image of the brain at rest, meaning those portions with more hydrogen atoms are experiencing increased blood flow. Knowing which area of the brain is experiencing increased blood flow helps determine what effect the product is having on the subject (consumer). For instance, if the hippocampus is shown to have increased blood flow, we know one of two things: 1) the advertisement is being associated with a memory in the subject’s long term memory or 2) the advertisement is being added to the subject’s long term memory. To aid a scientist’s analysis of how an advertisement affects a consumer, the EEG machine is often used in tandem with the MRI.

NASA/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3: MRI scan of the brain.

While the MRI machine is great at determining what is happening deep inside the brain, the EEG machine measures electrical impulses generated by synapses near the surface of the brain. These electrical synapses are measured by placing between 20 and 256 electrodes on the scalp as seen in Figure 4 [10]. Reading the electrical synapses of the brain provides scientists a “window into the mind” by correlating different synapse patterns with different states of mind [11]. The synapse patterns of someone sleeping will be totally different of someone that is awake. Different synapse patterns can also distinguish between feelings of happiness, sadness, and disgust [12]. The EEG machine and its ability to differentiate between different states of mind make it a useful tool to neuromarketing experts.

Applied Neuromarketing

An example of neuromarketing research applied to the famous Pepsi-Coke challenge reveals just how important marketing really is to a company’s bottom line. In 2004 Read Montague, the lead scientist of the human neuroimaging lab and the center for theoretical Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, created an experiment to determine different influences Coke and Pepsi have on the human brain [13]. Montague placed 68 people into MRI machines and scanned their brains while they took sips of Coke and Pepsi. The experiment included two trials. The subjects in the first trial did not know which beverage they were receiving. In this first trial, about fifty percent of the subjects preferred the taste of Pepsi over the taste of Coke. Montague’s MRI scans showed that the subjects that preferred Pepsi had a strong response in their brain’s hypothalamus. This portion of the brain is known to process feelings of reward linked to satisfying motivational states such as hunger, meaning the subjects enjoyed the beverage as it quenched their thirst. In the second trial, the 68 subjects were told which soft drink they were about to taste. This resulted in over seventy five percent of subjects preferring the taste of Coke over the taste of Pepsi. MRI scans showed that in the subjects that preferred Coke, the areas of the “lateral prefrontal cortex” and the hippocampus contained increased blood flow [13]. These areas of the brain control analytical thinking and memory respectively [13]. This suggested that the subjects were thinking about Coke and relating their thoughts to memories of Coke that they were retrieving from their long term memory [13]. These trials show that the billion dollar soft drink market should be split evenly between Coke and Pepsi. Neuromarketing leads us to believe consumers are purchasing Coke not because it tastes better, but because of the brand name and their past experience with the brand name. This example demonstrates the importance of marketing and the incredible value it can have for a company and its profits.

Aschoeke/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 4: Man attached to an EEG machine.

Discourse Surrounding Neuromarketing

The majority of all neuromarketing research is taking place in hospitals and university laboratories around the country. While the costs of an EEG machine are not noteworthy, the average MRI machine costs between 1 and 3 million dollars, coupled with an average operating cost of $800,000, in addition to the costs of knowledgeable technicians to run the machines [14].


Scientists who support neuromarketing argue that the field should be allowed to grow unrestricted because it incentivizes the private sector to fund research. Private corporations investing in this research hope it will increase profits. Whether or not profits actually increase is only a side effect of some academic scientist’s real goal: furthering the field of neuroscience. When corporations see a possible return on investment, private funding may be much easier to receive than public funding or grants.
Many producers, and even some consumers, argue that neuromarketing creates benefits for society. Producers claim neuromarketing is necessary to stay competitive in a globalized world. If US companies are restricted from pursuing advanced marketing techniques, unrestricted foreign companies will steal market share and impede America’s economic growth. Some consumers claim that if neuromarketing brings companies closer to producing exactly what we desire, there will be less waste created as well as happier consumers.


Critics fear neuromarketing could infringe on people’s privacy. One critic with this belief is Bruce Alberts, the editor in-chief of Science who stated that he was “very concerned that brain imaging will be used in ways that infringe personal privacy to a totally unacceptable degree” [13]. He also noted that with the majority of neuromarketing companies operating in California, it seems like state legislation restricting what these companies can and cannot do is imminent [13]. If companies learn the biology behind the consumer’s ‘buy button’ how will consumers be able to say no, ever? This thought takes addiction, obesity, and credit card debt to a whole new level.
Another concern many critics hold is what happens to the patient in need of an MRI machine to maintain health when large corporations are competing for the same machines? For instance, should private companies be allowed to purchase MRI time from university research laboratories and hospitals? Some believe universities should not be allowed to provide research for private companies [13]. More importantly, when a private company pays a hospital big money to use MRI machines for neuromarketing research, some worry hospital patients who need MRI’s will have a lower priority as they may not be paying as much as the private companies [13].


Neuromarketing is a fascinating new convergence of multiple different fields of study including psychology, neuroscience, and economics. It is propelling the understanding of the brain through privately funded research as well as making private companies more competitive in the marketplace. Whether you applaud neuromarketing as it pushes the limits of science, or fear it crosses moral boundaries and should be restricted, there is no doubt, neuromarketing is a topic of the twenty-first century, and we should all hold an educated opinion.


    • References
    • [1] K. Randall. (2009) Neuromarketing Hope and Hype: 5 Brands Conducting Brain Research. [Website] Available: http://www.fastcompa​​marketing-hope-and-h​ype-5-brands-conduct​ing-brain-research
    • [2] http://neurophilosop​​6/12/04/the-incredib​le-case-of-phineas-g​age/
    • [3] S. Twomey. (2010) Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famouse Patient. [Website] Available: http://www.smithsoni​​chaeology/Phineas-Ga​ge-Neurosciences-Mos​t-Famous-Patient.htm​l
    • [4] E. Phelps, and A. Anderson. (1997) Emotional Memory: What Does the Amygdala Do? Current Biology 7.5 (1997): 311-14. Available: Http:// Cell Press. Web.
    • [5] “Hypothalamus Function.” Welcome to Meta-Health Weightloss Management Inc. Web. Available http://www.meta-heal​​musFunction.php [15 Sept. 2012]
    • [6] National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institute of Health. Know Your Brain. Maryland: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institute of Health, 2001. Print.
    • [7] http://jaugusty.weeb​​thalamus-amygdala-hi​ppocampus.html [2012]
    • [8] http://anthonychrist​ [2012]
    • [9] Magnetic Resonance Imaging Explained. Dr D. Bulte. Oxford University Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain Center, [2011]
    • [10] http://museumofconsc​​html [2012]
    • [11] Y. Anwar. “Scientists Use Brain Imaging to Reveal the Movies in Our Mind.” UC Berkeley News Center. Web.​​2/brain-movies/. [16 Sept. 2012]
    • [12] R. Lane “Neuroanatomical Correlates of Happiness, Sadness, and Disgust.”Psychiatry Online. Web. http://dsm.psychiatr​​rnals/AJP/3678/926.p​df [16 Sept. 2012]
    • [13] “Neuromarketing: Beyond Branding : The Lancet Neurology.” The Lancet Neurology. Web.​m/journals/laneur/ar​ticle/PIIS1474-4422(​03)00643-4/fulltext [17 Sept. 2012]
    • [14] “Compare MRI Cost.” MRI Cost and Pricing Information. Web. http://www.comparemr​ [16 Sept. 2012]

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