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<nettime> Brands and Identity in the Age of Neuroscience
Paul D. Miller on Mon, 9 Jan 2006 16:10:22 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Brands and Identity in the Age of Neuroscience


How brands get wired into the brain
18:31 04 January 2006
NewScientist.com news service
Shaoni Bhattacharya

A person's liking for a particular brand name is wired into a 
specific part of the brain, a new study reveals. The research may 
provide an insight into the brain mechanisms that underlie the 
behavioural preferences that advertisers attempt to hijack.

It has long been known that humans and animals can learn to 
associate an irrelevant stimulus with a positive experience, for 
example the ringing of a bell with food, as in the case of Pavlov's 
dogs. And neuroimaging studies have recently implicated two regions 
buried deep in the brain - the ventral striatum and the ventral 
midbrain - as having an important role in this learning.

But now work led by John O. Doherty, currently at Caltech in 
Pasadena, US, shows that the actual level of preference is encoded 
in these brain regions, and that people access this information to 
guide their decisions.

The key message of our study is that we are able to make use of 
neural signals deep in our brain to guide our decisions about what 
items to choose, say when choosing between particular soups in a 
supermarket, without actually sampling the foods themselves, says 
Doherty, who did the research while at University College London, UK.

This is because we can make use of our prior experiences of the 
items through which we fashioned subjective preferences - do I like 
it or not? he told New Scientist. The next time we come to make a 
decision we use those preferences.

Pavlovian conditioning
Doherty and colleagues at UCL and the University of Iowa, US, ranked 
the preferences of human volunteers for blackcurrant, melon, 
grapefruit and carrot juice, and for a tasteless, odourless control 

The researchers scanned the volunteers brains using a technique 
called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect 
enhanced blood flow in various brain regions the greater the flow, 
the greater the neural activity in those areas.

They developed a Pavlovian-type association by flashing a geometric 
shape on a computer screen and giving a squirt of juice into the 
volunteers's mouths. However, the volunteers did not realise that 
they were being conditioned in this way  they were simply told to 
press a button to indicate on which side of the screen the shape had 

The team measured how the volunteers had become conditioned by 
measuring their anticipation of the juice squirts following an image 
by measuring the dilation of their pupils.

Fast food poisoning
The fMRI scans revealed significant responses reflecting learning in 
the ventral midbrain and the ventral striatum. Crucially, they found 
that the strength of the response correlated with the volunteer's 
like or dislike of the juice.

"Stronger neural responses occur in these regions to a cue that is 
associated with a more preferred food" said Doherty. This shows that 
when you see a cue that is predictive of a reward, you are able to 
access information about your subjective preferences.

Doherty says this kind of brain programming may have an evolutionary 
function in helping humans and animals predict both good and bad 
experiences in their environment.

For instance, if you learn that a particular fast food outlet gave 
you food poisoning the last time you ate there  it is going to be in 
your interest to know not to go there again once you see the sign 
for that shop in the street he says.

Journal reference: Neuron (DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.11.014)

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