You could be forgiven for wondering how Moran Cerf ended up in a business school. A neuroscientist by training, Cerf has spent the past nine years peeking inside the brain for answers to some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human: the nature of consciousness, attention, memory, emotion, and free will.

But last fall, Cerf joined the faculty of the Kellogg School of Management as an assistant professor of marketing. His role? To bridge the gap between what neuroscientists understand and what he feels the business world needs to know about the brain—or as he puts it jokingly, “why we need to use the brain in business.”

Neuromarketing is already estimated to be a two billion dollar industry, with over 120 firms offering to mine the brain for clues about what people want and how to make them want more. And the neuromarketing bandwagon is only growing larger. If managers have not yet been approached by a firm selling neural wares, it is only a matter of time. 

The problem, of course, is that most managers know very little about neuroscience. Worse, there is no easy place to turn in order to determine which services would benefit a company and which would not—in part because neuromarketing firms have little incentive to offer up proprietary techniques to public scrutiny. What, then, is a manager to do?

“There is very little data out there that you can actually rely on, and that is because neuroscientists still mostly cater to an audience of other neuroscientists,” says Cerf. On the other hand, he continues, “marketing managers do not necessarily have the background in neuroscience that is required to assess the options. Even physically, the neuroscience department is typically [located near] the medical school, whereas marketing is in a different building, and they are not encouraged to speak to each other.”

Brain Basics

Cerf’s research involves a variety of techniques ranging from the external recording of brain activity using imaging tools like EEG and fMRI, to a technique known as single-neuron electrophysiology. “This is done in only a handful places,” says Cerf, as it involves partnering with a neurosurgery department: single-neuron electrophysiology is an invasive procedure—used primarily for clinical purposes—that allows researchers to eavesdrop on the activity of individual brain cells. The technique involves surgically inserting an electrode directly inside the brain of a conscious patient. Patients sit in the hospital for about 10 days, says Cerf, “waiting to have a number of seizures so we can figure out where the onset of the seizures is.”

While waiting, researchers invite the patients to engage in a number of tasks designed to take advantage of the unique opportunity to directly access their thoughts. “We find cells in their brain that tell us that they are about to press a button, move a cursor, or say something,” says Cerf, “sometimes seconds before they actually act on their will, or are aware of it.”

From a neuroscience perspective, the hope is to learn about the mechanisms that control the way our choices translate into action. This knowledge could be used, for instance, to build brain–machine interfaces: tools to help injured soldiers, accident victims, or those unable to communicate move objects in the world by “reading” their volitional patterns and transmitting them straight from brain to prosthetic limb.

But the technique also has immediate marketing implications. “Can I know something about your choices before you know, before anyone else knows? Can I affect them?  How does choice work in the brain?” asks Cerf. He poses a hypothetical. Say you have hired a celebrity like Tiger Woods to endorse your product, Crest Whitestrips. You want to know how many times a potential customer has to see Tiger Woods holding a box of the whitening strips before the brain will learn to associate the strips with Tiger Woods and vice versa. Data from studies conducted on patients could tell marketers that, for instance, “it takes no more than twenty exposures and no less than five to create some kind of pairing like this,” suggests Cerf. Marketers might use this information to optimize marketing campaigns.

Bang for the Buck

So clearly neuroscience has the potential to offer firms some rather tantalizing tools. But even less invasive techniques like EEG and fMRI—the sort of techniques that can ethically be used to study nonpatient populations—are very expensive. Can these techniques actually tell us anything that relatively inexpensive tools, such as focus groups, do not?

As it turns out, they sometimes can. But, the world is not necessarily prepared to give up existing methods. Cerf learned this lesson early in his career. As a doctoral student in neuroscience, he helped invent an exciting new product: by collecting neurological data from website users, he was able to determine the best place to post an ad. To his astonishment, however, he could not find a single media company interested in actually using the product he had developed. It is not that it did not work—it did, Cerf assures us. Rather, media companies already had employees who could accurately determine where an ad would attract the most attention using only their own carefully honed intuitions. These people were “better than us and faster than us,” says Cerf. “We had a beautiful item to tell you what is going to capture people’s attention,” he continues, “and no one wanted it.”

So when is there merit to using neuroscience to understand customers’ decisions? There are some instances where the brain can reveal information that goes beyond what even the most carefully crafted questionnaires or other behavioral measures can tell us. Research on how people engage with content may offer a particularly promising opportunity.

The Rules of Engagement

Engagement has always been something of a holy grail for marketers. Previous studies suggest that we find engaging content more satisfying than less engaging content—and we are likelier to want to experience that content again. For a while, researchers were busy looking for specific patterns of brain activity that could then be linked with engagement. When we watch a hilarious YouTube video, or listen to an enticing lecturer, do parts of the brain reliably become active that do not when we watch something dull—like Andy Warhol’s “Empire,” which features over eight hours of slow-motion footage of the Empire State Building? Neuroscientists have been trying to identify such a site for a while, but no consistent results have emerged. For a while neuroscientists were at a standstill on this front.

But in 2008, neuroscientists proposed that engagement could be detected by looking at similarities across brains—that engagement has a uniforming effect on neural activity. “It makes all brains look the same. So it means that here, maybe it is going to be silent in your brain. But its also going to be silent in my brain,” says Cerf. “Twenty people are going to sit there and they are all going to have that part silent … Boring content lets all brains wander in different directions. Engaging content takes over everyone’s brain in a similar way.”

The idea is that when we are watching a high-speed car chase, for instance, we are all paying attention to the same things: the cars as they careen down city blocks. But when faced with nothing but the Empire State Building to stare at, our minds wander. We start to think: Why do the building’s lights look so funny? I really should have ordered the lox sandwich for lunch. When’s dinner?

Cerf recently tested the theory in a study. While sitting inside an fMRI scanner, one set of participants watched a 20-minute episode of a television series, while a second listened to an 8-minute audio clip from the storytelling competition The Moth. Two additional groups of participants also watched the television show or listened to the audio clip, but while seated in front of a computer. This latter group was tasked with gauging their own moment-by-moment engagement with the material, rating it periodically on a scale from 1 to 100. Then, a day later, participants were brought back into the lab and asked questions about what they had watched or heard.

When Cerf and his colleagues examined the fMRI data they had collected, they found that, for both the TV watchers and the Moth listeners, the cross-brain correlations were highest—meaning brains were at their most similar—during climactic moments in the stories. Brains were at their least similar, on the other hand, when the events depicted were complex or had many different interpretations.

When participants were brought back to the lab days later and asked to recount a variety of specific events, they were much more likely to remember specifics from the moments that their brains had pegged as engaging than the moments their brains had deemed less so. This was true even for individuals who claimed to find the dull moments engaging. That is, participants’ subjective rating of engagement—that moment-by-moment number from 1 to 100—was a worse predictor of what participants would later remember about the stories than the information gleaned from neural measurements. The information we can collect about what people find engaging by putting them inside a scanner—as judged by what actually sticks with them—is better than the information we can get simply from asking them.

The Bottom Line

Cerf and his colleagues are now developing a product, the ThinkAlike engageMeter, to pinpoint engaging moments in marketing materials, movies, lectures, and the like. “So people have three different endings for their film,” says Cerf. “They want to choose an ending. They can now ask us, which ending is going to be more engaging?” Indeed, the team is now working with AMC theatres to decide the best order in which trailers should be viewed to maximally entice moviegoers. (The engageMeter was recently nominated for an Edison Award.)

“Our advantage,” Cerf reiterates, “is in the moments where … focus groups do not work best, because if you ask them, they may say that this ending of the movie is pretty boring, and you are going to cut it out of the movie. But I can tell you that they might say it is boring, but they are going to all remember this movie.” In other words, it is in being more insightful than people’s own insights about themselves that neuromarketing can really come into its own.

So, for most companies, is collecting neuromarketing data worth it? “Yes and no. The fact that a lot of companies use it means that it is giving them value,” says Cerf. “Right now this is where we are: Microsoft does use it to decide how Windows 9 will look, but we as neuroscientists didn’t prove that you couldn’t have gotten it otherwise.”

Artwork by Yevgenia Nayberg.