Super Bowl brain scans with added hype

superbowl_amygdala.jpgThe ‘complete results‘ from the Super Bowl brain scans are online, and it does indeed seem as if the exercise has been mostly hype.

Cardinal sins:

1) Not giving the comparison conditions and experimental design. This makes the reported results essentially meaningless.

2) Interpreting brain activity in certain areas to mean a certain response from viewers, even when they actually report something else.

female subjects may give verbally very low ‘grades’ to ads using actresses in sexy roles, but their mirror neuron areas seem to fire up quite a bit, suggesting some form of identification and empathy.

Mirror neurons tend to fire when anyone else’s actions are viewed, there is no evidence that approval or liking of the person doing the actions has any bearing on the response.

3) Assuming activation in the ‘mirror system’ equals empathy.

4) Assuming activation of the amygdala is a measure of fear.

There is a big jump in amygdala activity when the dinosaur crushes the caveman… The scene looks funny and has been described as funny by lots of people, but your amygdala still perceives it as threatening

The amygdala can be active when someone experiences happiness or joy. Equally, it could have been active because people found the scene funny.

5) Finishing on an advert for the neuromarketing company involved.

Link to ‘Complete results’.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on same.


Just a quick note to say thanks very much to Mark Brown who got sick of not having a favicon… and made us one. You can see it up there in the address bar, or – possibly – by the title for your RSS feed. Much appreciated, cheers!

Beautiful madness

her story.gifThis month’s Prospect magazine features a touching story about Nia – “..too beautiful to be in a psychiatric ward“. The true tale conveys elegantly the dilemma that often faces psychiatrists as they weigh up the benefits of antipsychotic medication against the side effects that can sometimes be worse than a patient’s original symptoms. In this story Nia’s beauty is ruined by the only drug that alleviates her psychosis – Olanzapine. What unnerves the psychiatrists is that she doesn’t seem to care, whereas they do. “The treatment had reversed a Faustian pact in which Nia had been beautiful and mad, and replaced it with another‚Äîin which she was fat and sane. But was it really a blessing that Nia seemed to have no conception of what she had lost?

Link to story by deputy editor of Prospect Alexander Linklater and psychiatrist Robert Drummond (access to this item is free).

What can brain scans tell us about Super Bowl ads?

super_bowl_scan.jpgTo cut a long story short – don’t believe the hype. At least as it’s described in a story doing the rounds.

According to the report, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni and his team brain-scanned people while they watched the Super Bowl adverts to see which “won”.

This is part of an emerging science called neuromarketing, which uses the techniques of cognitive neuroscience to try and evaluate and design better product promotions.

Iacoboni claims that “a good indicator of a successful ad is activity in brain areas concerned with reward and empathy” (which seems controversial at best, but we’ll move on).

The tricky bit comes when you try and measure brain activity from participants who are watching adverts.

The images generated from fMRI brain scanning are not pure ‘maps’ of brain activity. All of the brain is active all of the time, so to infer which areas are most involved, neuroscientists compare brain activity between different conditions.

These conditions are designed very carefully in scientific experiments, and in the most common form of comparison (‘subtraction’) they are identical, apart from the one thing that the researchers want to investigate.

It is, therefore, impossible to interpret the results of a brain scanning study without knowing how the experiment was designed and exactly what was being compared with what.

As this hasn’t been made clear, the results could be due to any number of things not related to how good the advert was.

From a previous study done on political ads by the same marketing company, it looks as if they just average the activation of a certain brain area over the course of the ad. They then base their conclusions of the effect of the ads on the assumed functions of these brain areas.

The difficulty is that the functions of these areas are still controversial. For example, with the Super Bowl ads, Iacobini claims that activation in the ‘mirror system’ is a measure of empathy. This is still highly contentious and is presumably based on conclusions from an earlier study of his.

Because of this uncertainty, it is difficult to know that any difference is not due to one advert having more movement in it than the other. Or perhaps more people. Or happier people. Or even something unrelated like a faster tempo in the music… despite the advert being otherwise rubbish.

The previous study on political ads (that made the front page of The New York Times no less) was completed while America was winding up for the 2004 presidential elections, and the current one was completed during the 24 hours after the Super Bowl.

Sounds like the ‘neuromarketing’ company involved in these stories is doing some pretty effective marketing of their own. Apparently more details will be forthcoming. I look forward to reading more (but remain skeptical!).

Link to ‘Who really won the Super Bowl? The Story of an Instant-Science Experiment’.

music, wine and will

You go to the supermarket and stop by some shelves offering French and German wine. You buy a bottle of French wine. After going through the checkout you are asked what made you choose that bottle of wine. You say something like “It was the right price”, or “I liked the label”. Did you notice the French music playing as you took it off the shelf? You probably did. Did it affect your choice of wine? No, you say, it didn’t.

That’s funny because on the days we play French music nearly 80% of people buying wine from those shelves choose French wine, and on the days we play German music the opposite happens

This study was done by Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester [1]. They played traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them. Similar experiments have shown that classical music can make people buy more expensive wine [2], or spend more in restaurants [3].

Is this manipulation? There’s no coercion, all the customers are certainly wine buyers who are probably more or less in the mood to buy some wine. But they have been influenced in what kind of wine they buy and they don’t know that they have.

What would be the effect, I wonder, of having someone stand by the shelves saying to the customers as they passed “Why don’t you buy a French wine today”? My hunch is that you’d make people think about their decision a lot more – just by trying to persuade them you’d turn the decision from a low involvement one into a high involvement one. People would start to discount your suggestion. But the suggestion made by the music doesn’t trigger any kind of monitoring. Instead, the authors of this study believe, it triggers memories associated with the music – preferences and frames of reference. Simply put, hearing the French music activates [4] ideas of ‘Frenchness’ – maybe making customers remember how much they like French wine, or how much they enjoyed their last trip to France. For a decision which people aren’t very involved with, with low costs either way (both the French and German wines are pretty similar, remember, except for their nationality) this is enough to swing the choice.

This priming affect is, I believe, one of the major ways advertising works [5]. Simply by making it more likely for us to remember certain things, we are more likely to make decisions biased in a certain way. There’s no compulsion, nobody has their free-will wrenched from their conscious grip. There’s just an environment shaped a certain way to encourage certain ideas. And how could anything be wrong with that?

Refs & Footnotes below the fold:

Continue reading “music, wine and will”

Henry Perowne on the neural code


“Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre”.(p.254)

Henry Perowne is the neurosurgeon at the centre of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday from which this quote is taken (ISBN 978-0-099-46968-1).

Link to previous post on the neural code.

Fear of clowns


Coulrophobia [fear of clowns] is most commonly triggered by a traumatic experience in childhood, said Steven Luel, a psychologist in New York specializing in anxiety and phobias.

Indeed, that was the case with Wallace. At the age of 6, she met her first clown at the circus, an encounter she still remembers clearly 25 years later.

“A clown got right up in my face, and I could see his beard stubble under his makeup. He smelled bad and his eyes were weird,” she said. “I guess I never got over it.”

Enough said.

Link to article (with fantastic title) ‘Fear of Clowns: No Laughing Matter’ from INS News.

Cognitive science café

chocolate_cake.jpgPsychologist Tania Lombrozo has collected suggestions for the menu of the fictional (but delicious sounding) cognitive science caf√©. It’s both full of psychology in-jokes and gives a lighthearted crib-sheet for some of the most influential thinkers in the field.

Some of my favourites include:

The Turing Tester
Half Brie with apricot jam on a French roll, half vegan alternative ‚Äî we bet you won’t know which is which!

The Wason Cheese Selector
Grilled Portobello mushroom with cheese. If cheddar, then sesame bun. (Please check your order carefully.)

The Piagetian
A sandwich in four stages: sensational baguette, quantities of Swiss cheese that are anything but conservative, the concrete crunch of walnuts, and a dash of Cayenne pepper lead to this sandwich’s formal elegance.

PDF of ‘Shepard’s Tables: A Cognitive Science Caf√©’ (via Mixing Memory)

Beauty in body and mind

shaded_face.jpgFrom Nancy Etcoff’s book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (ISBN 0385478542):

“People judge appearances as though somewhere in their minds an ideal beauty of the human form exists, a form they would recognise if they saw it, though they do not expect they ever will. It exists in the imagination.” (p11)

“Attitudes surrounding beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit. We view the body as a temple, a prison, a dwelling for the immortal soul, a tormentor, a garden of earthly delights, a biological envelope, a machine, a home. We cannot talk about our response to our body’s beauty without understanding all that we project onto our flesh.” (p20)

The Times on art, neuroscience and self-harm

razor_blade.jpgToday’s Times has two short but interesting articles in its ‘body and soul’ section, both of which are available online: one on the neuroscience of art and another on self-harm.

Mark Lythgoe is a neuroscientist at University College London who has been involved in art / science projects for over a decade. He discusses the possible neural basis for why Dan Flavin’s minimalist light-based artwork has such appeal.

The article on self-harm is inspired by a new book by Carolyn Smith, based on her own experiences of self-harm and recovery. It discusses the phenomenon, its emotional impact, and includes advice if you find out someone you know has self-harmed.

Link to article ‘The light fantastic’.
Link to article ‘Unkindest cut of all’.

experimental psychology of advertising resources

A few places where you can enjoy the intersection between experimental psychology and marketing research are at:


The Food and Brand Lab (was ‘The Illinois Food and Brand lab’, but has now moved to Cornell) found at

The Bangor University: The Experimental Consumer Psychology research group – see this article in New Scientist about Jane Raymond’s research Is advertising flogging a dead horse? (New Scientist, 24 December 2005).


The Association for Consumer Research

Society for Consumer Psychology


Journal of Consumer Psychology

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“>The Journal of Consumer Behaviour (defunct?)

Journal of Marketing

Journal of Marketing Research


Psychology and Marketing

Cognitive psychology & advertising

Here’s another approach to understanding how adverts work – cognitive psychology, as discussed in this Wired article from 2002 (thanks Lauren!)

You’ll probably not be surprised that I’ve lots of sympathy for experimenal psychology as a method for understanding adverts (as opposed to, say, semiotics). A conventional experimental cognitive psychology approach to understanding something about advertising would be:

1. Have an idea, e.g., I think Factor X makes people buy more stuff
2. Come up with an experiment which involves two situations which are identical except for the presence/absence of Factor X.
3. Include some measure which is a good enouch approximation for the behaviour ‘buying’ (it could be actual purchases, or it could be something like memory for the product, or extent of positive feelings for the product, which we just assume will convert into sales)
4. Do the experiment, write up the results, let the rest of the (psychology) world criticise your experiment
5. Do follow-up experiments to re-test your idea and counter criticisms.

Or something like that anyway. Here’s an example from the Wired article:

One example: At the University of Texas at Austin, cognitive science professor Art Markman gave a group of hungry people a few bites of popcorn. Another group got no food. Then he showed his volunteers pictures of products – DVD players, shampoo, cars, French toast. The group whose appetite had been whetted with popcorn had a harder time concentrating on the nonfoods. One obvious implication, Markman says: Food samples may actually hurt nongrocery sales.

Now the strength here is that you both check if there is an effect at all, and you narrow down the possibiliies so that you have a rough idea what is causing it (again, cf a semiotic approach). The weakness is that even though you’ve shown an effect in the lab, you’re not sure it will operate outside of the lab (the problem of generalisability), and you’re not going to be sure that, even if it does operate, it isn’t made irrelevant by some other factor that you weren’t looking at with your experimental lens. So, for example, maybe wetting people’s appetites does make it harder for them to concentrate on non-foods, but maybe in real life most people don’t wet their appetites before shopping for non-foods, so the finding is irrelevant. Or maybe everyone wets their appetites, so the supermarket needn’t worry about giving away samples – we’re all peckish anyway. Or maybe we’re more likely to buy non-foods when we’re not concentrating (concentration being the thing actually measured in the experiment), so being peckish actually helps non-food sales.

Anyway, so lots of things could be true, and it takes more than a simple lab study to work out which factors are dominating, but the great virtue of the experimental method is that it gives strong hints as to what sorts of things can be operating and – just as important – what sort of things can’t affect behaviour.

Explore your brain

psychpop_image.jpgA new online service called ‘PsychPop‘ has been launched by the Institute of Psychiatry in London. It allows members of the public to volunteer to help in research that aims to combat brain injury, neurological disease and mental illness.

Often, one of the difficulties in conducting research is not recruiting people affected by medical conditions, but members of the public.

General public participants are essential allies in research, needed to determine which aspects of mind and brain functioning might be different when compared to people with a specific condition.

The service at the Institute of Psychiatry has been set up by neuropsychologist and wikipedian Paul Wicks, initially out of frustration when trying to recruit members of the public in his own research on motor neurone disease.

Taking part in research can also be a fascinating experience. If you don’t live in London, most universities will conduct research into the mind and brain so it’s worth getting in touch and asking how to volunteer.

Crucially, find out exactly what’s involved, make sure the study has ethical approval (it has been judged by an ethics committee to be safe and well conducted) and ask any questions you have before starting.

Other than that, enjoy the experience! You usually get your travel expenses reimbursed and can often get a copy of the results – including a picture of your brain if you take part in a neuroimaging study.

Cognitive scientists: If your department has an online sign-up form for participants, why not add a link in the comments page of this entry?

Link to PsychPop.

2006-02-03 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


A new blog ‘On The Spectrum‘ collects and discusses development in the science of the autism spectrum.

Mixing Memory discusses the psychology of intellectual of insight

ABC Radio’s All in the Mind discusses the effect of petrol sniffing on the brain.

Scientific brain linked to autism – with the appropriate number of caveats and qualifications.

Brain Waves previews an upcoming book on the female brain.

Epilepsy Action launches Mothers in Mind campaign.

RadioLab’s science programme discusses the psychology and neuroscience of stress.

A report on a person who experiences near permanent deja-vu.

An engaging article from Cognitive Daily tackles research on the how children understand the concept of death.

Wired chart the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation for the treatment of depression.

Decoding Advertisements

Judith Williamson’s ‘Decoding Advertisements’ is a classic look at the semiotics of advertising – about how adverts construct and promolgate meaning, necessarily involving the customer in a system of signs and symbols, as a token in that system. It’s a great book and, in some sense, a forerunner of Naomi Klein’s book on Brands, No Logo

I’m going to talk about it because it is exactly not what I am interested in in terms of advertising and psychology.

The first advert discussed in the book (shown below, p18 in the book) is an advert for car tyres. The advert shows a car stopped just before the end of a jetty; the text reports how they drove the car 36,000 miles and then did an emergency stop to test the quality of the tyres. They stopped fine – in other words, ‘these are good tyres’. But – aha! – says Judith Williamson – that is just the overt message of the advert. The covert message of the advert is captured in the image


The outside of the jetty resembles the outside of a tyre and the curve is suggestive of its shape: the whole jetty is one big tyre…The jetty is tough and strong, it withstands water and erosion and does not wear down: because of the visual resemblance we assume that this is true of the tyre as well. In the picture the jetty actually encloses the car, protectively surrounding it with solidity in the middle of dangerous water: similarly, the whole safety of the car and driver is wrapped up in the tyre, which stands up to the elements and supports the car. Thus what seemed to be merely a part of the apparatus for conveying a message about braking speed, turns out to be a message in itself, one that works not on the overt but almost on the unconscious level; and one which involves a connection being made, a correlation between two objects (tyre and jetty) not on a rational basis but by a leap made on the basis of appearance, juxtaposition and connotation.

Is this true? Do the qualities of the jetty occur to us and transfer to the tyres? Does this happen covertly, on an ‘almost unconscious level’. Does this magic bypass the normal rational monitoring of our thoughts? Well, it could be true, maybe. But also, something like it could be true – maybe the image really plays the role of a phallic symbol and suggest to the viewer thoughts of masculine strength and durability. Or maybe something contradictory but similar in style is true – does the image suggest danger, when the tyres are meant to make you feel safe, so that really it is a bad advert. Or maybe people just like to look at a nice picture of a jetty in the sea. Or maybe they like the curves of the jetty, and this makes them feel positive about the thing they see at the same time (the logo of the tyre manufacturer). All of these things could be true – I don’t believe Judith Williamson has any more idea than us which are true, and this is why I’m not interested in the semiotics of advertising at the moment.

The argument advanced in ‘Decoding Advertisements’ misses a critical step. Can it be shown that covert visual imagery affects consumer’s buying behaviour? I don’t doubt that covert visual imagery exists, nor even that in some circumstances has an effect, but does it have an effect in adverts? Till the whole class of influences talked about is demonstrated to be in operation, why should I believe these analyses of adverts are any more than psychoanalytic-spook stories?

So, while I’m alive to the use of decoding adverts using semiotics, the first stops on my investigation into adverts will be

  • the experimental evidence which shows that adverts do have an effect

  • and

  • the experimental evidence on what sorts of things affect behaviours

  • By ‘sorts of things’ I mean general categories like ‘new information’, ‘social influence’, ‘status’, ‘sex appeal’, ‘positive emotions’ – all things that at first glance seem more likely to be factors in adverts’ success. I’ll leave the fine, critical-theory, detail for later, and until I can be persuaded that, in an advert, a jetty is more than just a jetty.


    Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars. You can get a flavour for the book from this discussion, which includes examples. Judith Williamson is a flag on the fantastic semiotics black run.

    NewSci on robots and chronobiology

    newsci_20060202.jpgToday’s New Scientist is a special on robots, particularly focusing on robots that mimic or model certain aspects of human behaviour.

    The issue also has an additional article on whether it is possible to regulate the brain’s ‘time keeper’ to change the conscious perception of time – a skill which could be used to allow for more conscious control of difficult tasks.

    The article does suffer from a few points of frank weirdness (e.g. “Schizophrenics have too much dopamine activity in the brain so their clock is so fast that it feels like the whole world is crazy” – wtf?) but is otherwise an interesting look at chronobiology – the science of biological time perception.

    For those wanting to know more about the area, you could do far worse than go to the insightful and informative blog Circadiana, for which chronobiology is a focus of interest.

    Otherwise, your local library should have a copy of New Scientist if your newsagent doesn’t, as unfortunately, the main feature articles aren’t available online.

    Link to table of contents for this week’s New Scientist.
    Link to Circadiana.