Fatigued holiday shoppers wandering the malls would probably love to have a better way to figure out which book or toy to give to a friend or family member this Christmas. Now neuroscientists are working on just that problem, using brain imaging technology to try to predict which of a range of products an individual will prefer. Although the findings won’t inform holiday shopping this season, scientists say the research could aid in product development and yield new understanding of how such choices are made.
“We want to find out if there’s something going on in people’s brains that forecasts whether they will buy an item or not, particularly for stuff people say they are excited about but then don’t buy when they get to the store,” says Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech.
Camerer is one of a number of experts who have brought together brain imaging and economic modeling to establish the discipline of neuroeconomics, which is already beginning to shed light on the intricacies of how people decide many things, including what to buy. “I think it will really open up the biology of human choice,” says Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech and University College London.
Brain imaging studies performed while people gamble and play other kinds of games have helped scientists identify the regions involved in these tasks. They include parts of the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in planning complex cognitive behaviors, and the striatum, an area deep in the brain that receives information from many other regions. “The question is, how do you go from [knowing which brain areas to look at] to predicting behavior?” says Kenway Louie, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University.
Louie and others in Paul Glimcher’s lab at New York University are tackling that question. In one experiment soon to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers showed volunteers sitting in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner a selection of books, DVDs, and posters and asked them to rate how much the items would be worth to them. The scientists recorded the subjects’ brain activity as they thought about these values. The same subjects then ranked the entire list of items.
The researchers found that the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the striatum that are involved in game playing were most active when people looked at items they valued most highly. To see if they could actually predict which of two items an individual preferred, researchers compared brain activity for pairs of objects. They found that for items with large differences in ranked value, looking at the brain scans allowed them to predict which item an individual would pick with about 80 percent accuracy.