Daily Archives: June 26, 2008

Did the human brain evolve to seek out innovative experiences?

Science Daily reports here on research by British scientists which suggests that human beings are predisposed to seek out the new and the unfamiliar:

In an experiment carried out at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London), volunteers were shown a selection of images, which they had already been familiarised with. Each card had a unique probability of reward attached to it and over the course of the experiment, the volunteers would be able to work out which selection would provide the highest rewards. However, when unfamiliar images were introduced, the researchers found that volunteers were more likely to take a chance and select one of these options than continue with their familiar — and arguably safer — option.

Using fMRI scanners…  Dr Bianca Wittmann and colleagues showed that when the subjects selected an unfamiliar option, an area of the brain known as the ventral striatum lit up, indicating that it was more active. The ventral striatum is in one of the evolutionarily primitive regions of the brain, suggesting that the process can be advantageous and will be shared by many animals.

“Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioural tendency in humans and animals,” says Dr Wittmann. “It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run. For example, a monkey who chooses to deviate from its diet of bananas, even if this involves moving to an unfamiliar part of the forest and eating a new type of food, may find its diet enriched and more nutritious.”

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Is neuromarketing coming to a retailer near you?

Thanks to Cog Sci Blog reader “LF” for making me aware of this interesting article in The Atlantic concerning a (possibly) emerging field called neuromarketing:

[The] field of neuromarketing [argues] that fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging – brain scanning] technology provides fail-safe insights into consumer behavior. Unlike traditional methods of measuring the effectiveness of advertisements, fMRI defeats the curse of standard market-testing: the bias in self-reporting. In other words, if the ventral striatum [region of the brain] lights up when I drink Pepsi, this means—according to FKF, at any rate—that I find Pepsi greatly pleasurable, even if I report no particular experience of pleasure in a taste test.

Although neuromarketing, like other kinds of ‘applied’ brain research, has a long way to go before it can produce truly compelling data, I was please to read that the article made note of some of the various limitations and validity issues inherent in fMRI.