How the brain assembles belief.

From the February 27, 2005 Los Angeles Times:

Searching for the Why of Buy
Researchers scan for insight into how marketing may brand the brain’s preference for products and politicians.
By Robert Lee Hotz, Times Staff Writer

Pictures of products danced in his head.

There was an Apple iPod, then a black Aeron chair. A coffeepot by Capresso and a washing machine by Dyson. Christian Dior followed by Versace, Oakley, Honda, Evian and Louis Vuitton.

Each icon of commercial design — 140 in all — was projected onto goggles covering the eyes of a 54-year-old, college-educated, middle-class white male.

The volunteer’s head was cradled inside a 12-ton medical imaging scanner at Caltech, held firmly in place at the focal point of a pulsing magnetic field. The chamber reverberated with a 110-decibel sandblaster roar.

Behind a double-thickness of shatterproof glass, Steve Quartz, 42, and Anette Asp, 28, monitored the flicker of his thoughts in color-coded swirls on a computer display.

The two Caltech researchers were investigating the effect of perhaps the most pervasive force in a consumer culture — marketing — on the most complex object in the world: the human brain.

Quartz, director of the school’s social cognitive neuroscience laboratory, and Asp, his project manager, were seeking evidence in the subject’s brain of an all but indefinable quality of fashion and product branding ‚Äî the subjective essence that makes an object irresistibly cool.

As the magnetic signals hammered the air, the subject’s brain told them things that his mind did not know.

Psychologists and economists are using sophisticated brain scanners to tease apart the automatic judgments that dart below the surface of awareness.

They seek to understand the cellular sweetness of rewards and the biology of brand consciousness. In the process, they are gleaning hints as to how our synapses might be manipulated to boost sales, generate fads or even win votes for political candidates.

They have glimpsed how the brain assembles belief.

The why of buy is a trillion-dollar question.

By one estimate, 700 new products are introduced every day. Last year, 26,893 new food and household products materialized on store shelves around the world, including 115 deodorants, 187 breakfast cereals and 303 women’s fragrances. In all, 2 million brands vie for attention.

To find profit in so many similar items, marketers attempt to brand a product on a buyer’s mind. Such efforts put the average American adult in the crosshairs of as many as 3,000 advertising messages a day ‚Äî five times more than two decades ago.

Children are exposed to 40,000 commercials every year. By the age of 18 months, they can recognize logos. By 10, they have memorized 300 to 400 brands, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. The average adult can recognize thousands.

“We are embedded in an enormous sea of cultural messages, the neural influences of which we poorly understand,” said neuroscientist Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “We don’t understand the way in which messages can gain control over our behavior.”

That is starting to change. By monitoring brain activity directly, researchers are discovering the unexpected ways in which the brain makes up the mind.

Many seemingly rational decisions are reflexive snap judgments, shaped by networks of neurons acting in concert. These orchestras of cells are surprisingly malleable, readily responding to the influence of experience.

Moreover, researchers suspect that the inescapable influence of marketing does more than change minds. It may alter the brain.

Just as practicing the piano or learning to read can physically alter areas of the cerebral cortex, the intense, repetitive stimulation of marketing might shape susceptible brain circuits involved in decision-making.

These inquiries into consumer behavior harness techniques pioneered for medical diagnosis: positron emission tomography, which measures the brain’s chemical activity; magneto-encephalography, which measures the brain’s magnetic fields; and functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures blood flow around working neurons.

“This is a way of prying open the box and seeing what is inside,” said psychologist Jonathan Cohen, director of Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Brain, Mind & Behavior.

Inside the Caltech scanner, faces flashed before the subject’s eyes.

Each one was famous — an easily recognized emblem of celebrity marketed as heavily as any designer label.

Each triggered a response in the volunteer’s brain, recorded by Quartz and Asp with Caltech’s $2.5-million functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) and then weighed against the volunteer’s responses to a 14-page questionnaire.

Uma Thurman. Cool.

Barbra Streisand. Uncool.

Justin Timberlake. Uncool.

Al Pacino. Cool.

Patrick Swayze. Very uncool.

The volunteer’s brain cells became a focus group.

In his mind’s eye, the celebrities triggered many of the same circuits as images of shoes, cars, chairs, wristwatches, sunglasses, handbags and water bottles.

For all their differences, objects and celebrity faces were reduced to a common denominator: a spasm of synapses in a part of the cortex called Brodmann’s area 10, a region associated with a sense of identity and social image.

“On first pass, there might seem to be nothing in common between cool sunglasses, cool dishwashers and cool people,” Asp said. “But there is something that these brains are recognizing ‚Äî some common dimension.”

None of these neural responses may come consciously to mind when a shopper is browsing brand labels.

Much of what was traditionally considered the product of logic and deliberation is actually driven by primitive brain systems responsible for emotional responses — automatic processes that evolved to manage conflicts between sex, hunger, thirst and the other elemental appetites of survival.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that regions such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus are dynamic switchboards that blend memory, emotions and biochemical triggers. These interconnected neurons shape the ways that fear, panic, exhilaration and social pressure influence the choices that people make.

As researchers have learned to map the anatomy of behavior, they realized that the brain — a 3-pound constellation of relationships between billions of cells, shaped by the interplay of genes and environment — is more malleable than anyone had guessed.

Lattices of neurons are linked by pathways forged, then continually revised, by experience. So intimate is this feedback that there is no way to separate the brain’s neural structure from the influence of the world that surrounds it.

In that sense, some people may indeed be born to shop; but others may be molded into consumers.

“We think there are branded brains,” Asp said.

The Caltech experiment, funded with a $1-million grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, seemed to detect a part of the brain susceptible to such influences.

After analyzing test datafrom 21 men and women, Quartz and Asp discovered that consumer products triggered distinctive brain patterns that allowed them to classify peoplein broad psychological categories.

At one extreme were people whose brains responded intensely to “cool” products and celebrities with bursts of activity in Brodmann’s area 10 ‚Äî but reacted not at all to the “uncool” displays.

The scientists dubbed these people “cool fools,” likely to be impulsive or compulsive shoppers.

At the other extreme were people whose brains reacted only to the unstylish items, a pattern that fits well with people who tend to be anxious, apprehensive or neurotic, Quartzsaid.

The reaction in both sets of brains was intense. The brains reflexively sought to fulfill desires or avoid humiliation.

Asp, a Swedish researcher who once majored in industrial design, volunteered for the fMRI probe. The scanner revealed a personality quite at odds with her own sense of self.

She searched the scanner’s images for the excited neurons in her prefrontal cortex that would reflect her enthusiasm for Prada and other high-fashion goods. Instead, the scanner detected the agitation in brain areas associated with anxiety and pain, suggesting she found it embarrassing to be seen in something insufficiently stylish.

It was fear, not admiration, that motivated her fashion sense.

“I thought I would be a cool fool,” she said. “I was very uncool.”

Inside the brain of the 54-year-old male volunteer, the sight of a desirable product triggered an involuntary surge of synapses in the motor cerebellum that ordinarily orchestrate the movement of a hand.

Without his mind being aware of it, his brain had started to reach out.

Deconstructing the anatomy of choice, the researchers are also probing the pliable neural circuits of reasoning and problem-solving ‚Äî the last of the brain’s regions to evolve, the last to mature during childhood, and the most susceptible to outside influences.

They have begun to obtain the first direct glimpses of how marketing can affect the structures of the brain.

Consider something as simple as a choice of soft drink.

At Baylor College of Medicine, Montague, 44, remembered telling his 17-year-old daughter: Let’s give the brain the Pepsi Challenge.

His daughter had been working as a summer intern in his Baylor laboratory. To give her a taste of practical neuroscience at work, he wanted to frame a research question that a teenager “could wrap her head around.”

Since 1999, consumers have been offered 545 new brands of carbonated beverages. Despite differences in taste, color, caffeine and fizz, they are all based on a single sensory theme: sugar and water.

What happens in the brain, Montague wondered, when people decide between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, two of the most popular — and most similar — soft drinks in the world?

With funding from the Kane Family Foundation and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they designed an experiment that became a test of the relative importance of the label on a cola can and the contents of the container.

Coca-Cola, in the words of one industry analyst, is “advertising incarnate.” The company was the first sponsor of the Olympic Games, gave its cola free to U.S. soldiers during World War II, and is credited with inventing the modern image of Santa Claus.

Against such a formidable competitor, Pepsi was able to transform itself from a bankrupt company in the 1930s into a $69-billion enterprise today, largely through marketing.

In all, 67 people took the 47-minute test inside Baylor’s fMRI machine.

Each swallowed sips of cola from a tube in a series of carefully calculated variations on the classic taste test. Each sip was preceded by a picture of a distinctively labeled red or blue cola can. Montague and his colleagues varied the order of the sodas, the labels and the timing of the sequence.

The volunteers had no preference when the drinks were offered unlabeled, the researchers discovered. But they overwhelmingly preferred Coke whenever that brand was displayed — no matter what cola was actually delivered through the sip tubes.

When the researchers analyzed the brain scans, they discovered that the Coke label appeared to activate a memory region called the hippocampus, along with structures in the midbrain known to compute the likelihood of rewards.

A brain region linked to the sense of self — the ventral putamen and the medial prefrontal cortex — also lighted up.

The Pepsi label prompted no such response.

“What is it about these two almost chemically identical drinks that causes such different behavior?” asked Baylor neuroscientist Damon Tomlin. “The answer, of course, is marketing.”

While Pepsi’s marketing campaign has been successful, it apparently has not reached as deeply as Coke’s.

Montague elaborated: “We can show that the idea of Coca-Cola activates structures in your midbrain that literally drive your behavior. That is how ideas gain control over instinct.”

The study is a first step, he said, in the effort to answer a more fundamental scientific question: “Why do we believe anything?”

The creation of belief is the essence of marketing.

Brain scanning has opened the possibility of new forms of manipulation, by charting ways for marketing savants to harness neural circuits of reward and desire more effectively.

In Atlanta, a consulting organization called the BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group launched the first neuromarketing company in 2002, promising in a press release “to unlock the consumer mind.” The company, whose clients include the Home Depot, Hitachi, Georgia-Pacific and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has conducted experiments with neuroscientists at Emory University in an effort to understand product preferences.

Justine Meaux, the company’s director of research, said BrightHouse helped businesses apply neuroscience to marketing, brand development and product innovation.

“It is fantastically relevant research,” Meaux said. “A few companies are at the stage where they want to incorporate it into their strategy.” She declined to name them.

In Los Angeles, Quartz and his Caltech colleagues have been negotiating with a marketing company called Lieberman Research Worldwide to find a way to sell brain-scanning services to advertisers.

“Our intent is to develop some type of strategic alliance that would develop tools and perhaps products for marketing-research users, based on the work Steve’s doing,” said Tim McPartlin, a senior vice president with the company. “It looks extremely useful to us.”

At the Open University in England and London Business School, researchers have been recording brain activity as shoppers tour a virtual store. The researchers say they have identified the neural region that becomes active when a shopper decides which product to pluck from a supermarket shelf.

In Germany, DaimlerChrysler Corp. used brain imaging to assess how young men responded to different car designs. In Japan, researchers at Nihon University and the Gallup Organization used brain scanning to probe customer loyalties to a Tokyo department store.

Many researchers are skeptical of efforts to commercialize insights into how the brain works.

“Right now, brain scanning, especially at the level of neuromarketing, is to some degree a matter of tea leaf reading,” said George Lowenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Nevertheless, a consumer group called Commercial Alert sought a congressional investigation of neuromarketing research last year.

“What would happen in this country if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and the voting booth?” asked Gary Ruskin, the group’s executive director, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behavior to serve their own ends?”

Already, some researchers have experimented with brain scanning as a way to probe how the brain responds to political advertising.

At the level of brain cells, sophisticated political arguments and party loyalties are reduced, like product preferences, to the activity of neural circuits honed by eons of evolution.

Research suggests that political beliefs appear to trigger the same malleable circuits of reward, identity, desire and threat.

In a series of unpublished experiments conducted during the recent presidential campaign, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni detected intriguing differences in how political brains react. It was the first time brain scanning had been used to study a political question, several experts said.

To 13 volunteers screened for political expertise and party loyalty, Iacoboni showed pictures of Sen. John F. Kerry, President Bush and Ralph Nader while recording their neural activity. He then screened footage for them from Republican and Democratic campaign ads.

Afterward, he recorded how their neural responses changed when they were shown the same faces a second time.

Not surprisingly, Iacoboni found that people watching their favored candidate responded with a surge of activity in the reward circuits of the brain.

Republican die-hards, however, seemed to have a strong positive emotional response to any prominent leader.

The Bush campaign ads appeared to change those Republican brain patterns by stimulating activity in areas involved in more rational deliberation, Iacoboni said.

Shown campaign advertising that touched on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Republicans and Democrats again had different responses.

“The Democrats had a big response in the amygdala ‚Äî the anxiety threat detector and bell-ringer in the brain,” said UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman, who helped organize the experiment. “Republicans did not have a statistically significant response to that, for whatever reason.”

The findings suggest that brain scanners, like focus groups and polling, could someday be a potent tool in probing voter preferences and the impact of campaign ads.

“When we start asking questions about somebody’s political disposition and their brain responses, then we start making interpretations about what defines us as people,” said Judy Illes, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

“That might have some potentially scary possibilities for misuse,” she said.

The research also undercuts traditional beliefs about the relationship between the brain and the mind, between the body and its intangible well of being, Illes said. In the process, personality becomes little more than an accidental byproduct of biology, a pattern of spots on a brain image.

“We are starting to probe neural signatures of preference … one of those things that make us uniquely individual. We have to be careful,” Illes said. “We are far more than the sum of our spots.”

"The century's greatest comic writer in the English language."

As Gonzo in Life as in His Work

Hunter S. Thompson died as he lived.
Opinion Journal, Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson was one of those rare writers who come as advertised. The Addams-family eyebrows in Stephen King’s book jacket photos combined with the heeby-jeeby horrors of his stories always made me think of Dracula. When I finally met Mr. King, he was in Miami playing, along with Amy Tan, in a jook-house band called the Remainders. He was Sunshine itself, a laugh and a half, the very picture of innocent fun, a Count Dracula who in real life was Peter Pan. Carl Hiaasen, the genius who has written such zany antic novels as “Striptease,” “Sick Puppy,” and “Skinny Dip” is in person as intelligent, thoughtful, sober, courteous, even courtly, a Southern gentleman as you could ask for (and I ask for them all the time and never find them). But the gonzo–Hunter’s coinage–madness of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1971) and his Rolling Stone classics such as “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (1970) was what you got in the flesh too. You didn’t have lunch or dinner with Hunter Thompson. You attended an event at mealtime.

I had never met Hunter when the book that established him as a literary figure, “The Hell’s Angels, a Strange and Terrible Saga,” was published in 1967. It was brilliant investigative journalism of the hazardous sort, written in a style and a voice no one had ever seen or heard before. The book revealed that he had been present at a party for the Hell’s Angels given by Ken Kesey and his hippie–at the time the term was not “hippie’ but “acid-head”–commune, the Merry Pranksters. The party would be a key scene in a book I was writing, (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). I cold-called Hunter in California, and he generously gave me not only his recollections but also the audiotapes he had recorded at that first famous alliance of the hippies and “outlaw” motorcycle gangs, a strange and terrible saga in itself, culminating in the Rolling Stones band hiring the Angels as security guards for a concert in Altamont, Calif., and the “security guards” beating a spectator to death with pool cues.

By way of a thank you for his help, I invited Hunter to lunch the next time he was in New York. It was one bright spring day in 1969. He proved to be one of those tall, rawboned, rangy young men with alarmingly bright eyes, who more than any other sort of human, in my experience, are prone to manic explosions. Hunter didn’t so much have a conversation with you as speak in explosive salvos of words on a related subject.

We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense, probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of his Adam’s apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so curious, he had to go and ask, “What’s in the bag, Hunter?”

“I’ve got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20 seconds,” said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up to 300 watts. “No, never mind,” I said. “I believe you! Show me later!” From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn’t clear out The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.

ÔøºThe next time I saw Hunter was in June of 1976 at the Aspen Design Conference in Aspen, Colo. By now Hunter had bought a large farm near Aspen where he seemed to raise mainly vicious dogs and deadly weapons, such as the .357 magnum. He publicized them constantly as a warning to those, Hell’s Angels presumably, who had been sending him death threats. I invited him to dinner at a swell restaurant in Aspen and a performance at the Big Tent, where the conference was held. My soon-to-be wife, Sheila, and I gave the waitress our dinner orders. Hunter ordered two banana daiquiris and two banana splits. Once he had finished them off, he summoned the waitress, looped his forefinger in the air and said, “Do it again.” Without a moment’s hesitation he downed his third and fourth banana daiquiris and his third and fourth banana splits, and departed with a glass of Wild Turkey bourbon in his hand.

When we reached the tent, the flap-keepers refused to let him enter with the whiskey. A loud argument broke out. I whispered to Hunter. “Just give me the glass and I’ll hold under my jacket and give it back to you inside.” That didn’t interest him in the slightest. What I failed to realize was that it was not about getting into the tent or drinking whiskey. It was the grand finale of an event, a happening aimed at turning the conventional order of things upside down. By and by we were all ejected from the premises, and Hunter couldn’t have been happier. The curtain came down for the evening.

ÔøºIn Hunter’s scheme of things, there were curtains¬†..¬†. and there were curtains. In the summer of 1988 I happened to be at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland one afternoon when an agitated but otherwise dignified, silver-haired old Scotsman came up to me and said, “I understand you’re a friend of the American writer Hunter Thompson.”

I said yes.

“By God–your Mr. Thompson is supposed to deliver a lecture at the Festival this evening–and I’ve just received a telephone call from him saying he’s in Kennedy Airport and has run into an old friend. What’s wrong with this man? He’s run into an old friend? There’s no possible way he can get here by this evening!”

“Sir,” I said, “when you book Hunter Thompson for a lecture, you have to realize it’s not actually going to be a lecture. It’s an event–and I’m afraid you’ve just had yours.”

Hunter’s life, like his work, was one long barbaric yawp, to use Whitman’s term, of the drug-fueled freedom from and mockery of all conventional proprieties that began in the 1960s. In that enterprise Hunter was something entirely new, something unique in our literary history. When I included an excerpt from “The Hell’s Angels” in a 1973 anthology called “The New Journalism,” he said he wasn’t part of anybody’s group. He wrote “gonzo.” He was sui generis. And that he was.

Yet he was also part of a century-old tradition in American letters, the tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, comic writers who mined the human comedy of a new chapter in the history of the West, namely, the American story, and wrote in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization. No one categorization covers this new form unless it is Hunter Thompson’s own word, gonzo. If so, in the 19th century Mark Twain was king of all the gonzo-writers. In the 20th century it was Hunter Thompson, whom I would nominate as the century’s greatest comic writer in the English language.



More from The Independent…

‘An utter contempt for power’

“I think Thompson has remained a writer of significance because, essentially a satirist, he displayed utter contempt for power – political power, financial power, even showbiz juice,” wrote the novelist Paul Theroux in 2003.

And yesterday, as news of Thompson’s death emerged, this sentiment was echoed by others. “He may have died relatively young but he made up for it in quality if not quantity,” said Paul Krassner, the veteran radical journalist and one of Thompson’s editors.

Fun and insanity: the doctor in his own words

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough. – Opening to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1972, in which HST begins his “savage journey to the heart of the American dream”

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls … not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked in a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can … – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

George W Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world. We didn’t vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today – and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? – Kingdom of Fear, 2003

At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on the one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going. – Paul Kemp, The Rum Diary, 1959, published 1998

The Edge … there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. – Hell’s Angels, 1965

I have learned a few tricks along the way, a few random skills and simple avoidance techniques- but mainly it has been luck, I think, and a keen attention to karma, along with my natural girlish charm. – Last paragraph of Kingdom of Fear, 2003

He shrugged. “Well, we don’t ask for nothin but the truth. Like I say, there’s not much good that you can write about us, but I don’t see where that gives people the right to just make up stuff … all this bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for em?” – Hell’s Angels

To hell with Fun. I shit on the chest of Fun. Look what it did to Charles Manson. He had Too much fun – no doubt about that – so they put him away for life. – Kingdom of Fear

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me. – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

O Ghost, O Lost, Lost and Gone, O Ghost, come back again. – Kingdom of Fear