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Here’s some creepy news for those of you who think that brain science has been more than a little over-rated: Hollywood is now working with a researcher at Cal Tech who promises them insights into “neuromarketing,” that is, he uses brain scans of people watching movies to determine which moments produce the most dramatic emotional impact. Here’s what he claims about his technique: “There’s a part of the brain - the orbitofrontal cortex - that underlies liking or anticipation. We can look at changes in blood flow in that region to measure how much people are anticipating a movie when they are watching a trailer or how much liking they have. Another region indicates humour. We can look at the whole brain, millimetre by millimetre.” He adds that many consumers are surprised to look at their brain scans and discover that they liked parts of the movies they didn’t realize they liked: “They maybe don’t want to admit they find an action hero attractive, but you can see it directly in their brain.”

Of course, it’s also possible that the brain scan data isn’t really as accurate as claimed and that we are trying, once again, to substitute pseudoscience for actual cultural analysis. Reading twitching muscles or throbing synapses may be no more accurate than reading tea leaves, but in a world where fortunes are won and lost on the ability to predict audience response, Hollwyood is taking no chances.

I am reminded of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia pictures in the 1930s, who used to claim that if he squirmed during a movie, he could tell it was no good and audiences wouldn’t like it. Frank Capra once almost lost his job when he remarked, “Imagine the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s bum.”

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