Don’t ask me, ask my brain.

BrainDid you know that sun can damage your skin?  How likely are you to increase your sunscreen use this week?  No, don’t tell me.  Chances are, you will be a less reliable indicator of your own behavior than a brain scan will.  It may sound crazy, but this is the conclusion of a study published June 23, 2010 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The research team, led by Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, had subjects watch a public service announcement about the benefits of sunscreen while in an fMRI machine.  The researchers looked for an increase in activity of the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with values, preferences, and self-reflection.  Then, the researchers asked the subjects how likely they were to use more sunscreen during the upcoming week.  After one week, the subjects were asked how often they ended up using sunscreen.

What the researchers found was that the subjects who showed an increase in medial prefrontal cortex activity were 75% more likely to use sunscreen, whereas the subjects who self-reported the intention to use more sunscreen were only about 50% more likely to do so.  Thus, the researchers had better information about how the subjects would behave during the upcoming week than the subjects themselves.

The potential implications for advertising are hard to ignore.  In an interview with Stuart Wolpert of, Emily Falk, a co-author of the study, said, “A problem with standard focus groups is that people are lousy at reporting what they will actually do. We have not had much to supplement that approach, but in the future it may be possible to create what we are calling ‘neural focus groups.’ Instead of talking with people about what they think they will do, a public health or advertising agency can study their brains and learn what they are really likely to do and how an advertisement would be likely to affect millions of other people as well.”

The paper concludes, “This is the first functional magnetic resonance imaging study to demonstrate that a neural signal can predict complex real world behavior days in advance.”

Related Articles:

The Natural Philosophy of Agency

By Shaun Gallagher , University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Philosophical Issues in Neuroimaging

By Colin Klein , University of Illinois
(Vol. 5, February 2010)
Philosophy Compass

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