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How brain mapping may change the way we think about decision-making

It’s the potential Holy Grail of the business world — knowing decisively what your customer wants and whether your new product or service will be a hit in the marketplace. But sure things are only the whimsy of fantasy worlds. Or are they?

Nascent technologies in the field of brain mapping may just turn science fiction into reality and help researchers understand more about the brain, including how people make decisions.

“In a sentence, [the goal] is to map the structure and function of the human brain in health and disease,” says John Mazziotta, director, division of brain mapping and chair of the neurology department at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The possibilities for brain mapping, he says, are still in the infancy stage.

Smart Business spoke with Mazziotta about the emerging technology and its implications for businesses.

What practical uses for brain mapping are there for the business world?

From a research point of view, understanding how the brain functions has a lot of social and societal implications. There have been quite a few studies in decision-making and how people respond to marketing campaigns — whether they like Coke or Pepsi.

Understanding the way that the brain makes choices, obviously, is relevant to business. A number of companies, [such as those in] the entertainment industry, are considering using these strategies to optimize their products.

Rather than focus groups, why not see how the person is actually reacting to the material, the product or the concept directly?

How do you do that?

We’ve done experiments where we had Democrats and Republicans look at campaign ads from their favorite or least favorite candidates. You can predict by looking at the scan what the response is going to be.

It is the same with Coke or Pepsi or the design of automobiles.

How does the scan tell you about a person?

The brain is a very intricate set of interconnected regions that have a sort of dynamic choreography responding to the environment on an ongoing basis and comparing new information with previous experiences. For each one of these experiences, there is a different arrangement.

The general field now is being called neuroeconomics. It also includes topics such as why people like to take risks in the stock market or gambling — how they make those decisions. It has taken a behavioral science, studying how people respond in different situations, to a brain science, where you can actually look at the systems in the brain that are in use when trying to make such decisions.

So that’s sort of out there; it’s a futuristic application.

In the more practical mode, we are building an atlas of the human brain. We studied 7,000 people around the world in eight laboratories in seven countries on four continents. Because everyone’s brain is different in size, shape, organization, we have to make an atlas that is probabilistic.

In a population, the odds are this is where this structure is, this is where this function is. We’re doing this for both structure and function.

If you compared this to an atlas of the earth, the structure would be the mountain ranges, freeways, things that are physically present. In the brain, that is the anatomy — the folds in the brain, the different nuclei and the different pieces of the brain that have names.

Function for an Earth atlas would be crime rate, air pollution, traffic patterns, those sorts of things. They are constantly changing. In the brain, those things would be the firing rate of cells, receptors and chemical activity.

And again, that’s a dynamically, constantly changing process. So building this atlas has been a major undertaking for the last 12 years with all of these countries.

From a marketing perspective, how could a business use this to predict product success?

They would set up a system where a group of subjects of the age and demographics of their target market come in and see possible products or campaigns or logos or whatever it is going to be and determine how positive or negative the reactions of those people are.

You compare it to something that they really liked. In a given person, you could say, ‘What kind of a car do you really like?’ ‘Well, I really like BMW 7 series.’

So we show a picture of that and see how the brain responds. ‘And what car do you really not like?’ ‘Well, I don’t like a Hummer.’ So you show them a picture of a Hummer and see that pattern.

‘Now here are three new potential cars that we are thinking about making,’ and you see how much that reaction matches the positive or negative pattern.

Could you apply this same concept to the recruitment process of senior executives to determine who would be a good leader?

We haven’t looked at that yet, but I think that it is conceivable. That falls under the general heading of social cognition, which is a big part of trying to understand group dynamics and how individual brain reactions provide personality characteristics that are more or less like a description that you would have for a given position.

JOHN C. MAZZIOTTA is director of the division of brain mapping and chair of the neurology department at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Reach him at (310) 825-2699 or mazz@loni.ucla.edu.

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