10 October 2010
The ability to read someone's mind is a concept which has long fascinated and frightened many. This subject has often been depicted in television and film. We have the mind-reading ex-cop Matt Parkman in TV's Heroes, who uses his ability to try to prevent and solve crimes. And there's Nick, Mel Gibson's character in What Women Want (2000), who gains this ability after an accident, and tries to use it to his professional and personal advantage.
Mind reading may now be a reality. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience last month, psychologists at UCLA used a brain-imaging technique called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study whether or not these brain scans could predict people's behavior.
The researchers were interested in understanding how persuasive messages might lead to behavior change. They wrote,
“Although persuasive messages often alter people’s self-reported attitudes and intentions to perform behaviors, these self-reports do not necessarily predict behavior change.”
What the researchers found was that the brain scans were actually better predictors than the study subjects' own intentions of how they would actually behave, in this case, on whether they would use sunscreen after viewing an educational video.
Emily Falk, Matthew Lieberman and their team recruited 20 young men and women for their experiment. The study subjects had their brains scanned while they read and listened to messages about the safe use of sunscreen, mixed in with other messages so they would not guess what the experiment was about.
Before they were scanned, they completed questionnaires which included their current attitudes and patterns of sunscreen use, as well as their intentions to use sunscreen in the next week.
The researchers wrote:
“After they saw the messages, the volunteers answered more questions about their intentions, and then got a goody bag that contained, among other things, sunscreen towelettes.”
A week later, the subjects were asked about their sunscreen use that week. About half the volunteers had correctly predicted whether they would use sunscreen.
The researchers analyzed the fMRI images for indications of brain activity that might correlate to an increase in sunscreen use. They found that activity in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex allowed them to predict for 75% of the study subjects whether they would increase their sunscreen use.
In other words, activity in this area was a better gauge than the subjects themselves of how susceptible they were to integrating information that was shown to them.
As Lieberman was quoted in Reuters:
“It is the one region of the prefrontal cortex that we know is disproportionately larger in humans than in other primates. This region is associated with self-awareness, and seems to be critical for thinking about yourself and thinking about your preferences and values.”
While this research is very preliminary, it is certainly intriguing.
What could this kind of technology be used for?
Falk suggests its use to create public health messages to motivate positive health behaviors. But these findings could also be attractive to advertisers who want to figure out the best way to motivate you to buy their products.
Something like Google Ads?
Linda Shiue is a physician in California who writes about culture, food, health and parenting. She blogs at Open Salon.