Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Brain science meets `Gone with the Wind'

A man from CalTech knows what you are thinking and Hollywood is hoping he will predict what the next blockbuster will be

By John Sutherland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Cognitive philosophy -- "brain science" as its practitioners call it -- is a rarefied academic field. But that hasn't prevented Hollywood from optioning Steve Quartz. Not, alas, for a movie but for the cutthroat business of marketing them.

Quartz, it is believed, can forecast what the notoriously unpredictable audience for film "really" wants better than the audience themselves.

In his laboratory, Quartz uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure humans' responses to such classics as Casablanca.

"Essentially, people are placed inside an enormous magnet," he says. "And then we look to see small changes in blood flow. It's a way of tapping, in a totally non-invasive way, into brain activity."

The moneymen in LA were quick to lease his technique. More money was in prospect -- and safer money. As Quartz points out, the margin of profit for the industry is "somewhere in the area of 4 percent." They need all the help they can get.

It's not just celluloid. Neuromarketing will be the coming across the entire field of retailing. Reading the customer's brain will, Quartz believes, replace the clipboard and stop-you-in-the-street market survey and other primitive research techniques that commerce relies on to get its act right.

The standard view is that you can't foretell what people will want. Has Quartz, with his philosophical know-how and futuristic machinery, solved that problem?

"I think brain science is really beginning to explore the relationship between objective measures and subjective measures of things like taste and preferences," he replies. "When we make a decision there are, of course, conscious components in play. But it turns out that our brain is also tracking a lot of things that we may not be consciously aware of."

So are Quartz and his fellow brain scientists trying to program us, to turn us into robots? "No, I don't think so. My brain science approach is complementary to the kinds of behavioral things that people have been doing for a long time. It's a way of trying to gauge and measure in areas where, hitherto, we have had very little introspective access. It's a way of getting a new window into those places. And it's more a means of measuring preferences rather than a technique for manipulating choice."

Quartz's ideas cross traditional boundaries. He's both a philosopher and an experimental neurobiologist. And he's also creating a nexus -- a very profitable one -- between the university lab and the marketplace. Is he happy about that?

"I'm very drawn to that nexus. I think from the philosophical perspective it's a very interesting new development. We are now with brain science where we were 20 years ago with biotechnology -- that point in time, for example, when genetics was about to have significant real-world applications. With brain imaging we're at the point where we can look scientifically at decision-making. And from there we too will move on to applications in the political realm, or the economic realm, or the legal realm."

Does he see significant patterns when he puts all the test results together? That women, for instance, prefer different things from men, young people from old people and so on?

"It does work that way. One of the widespread public concerns about brain imaging technology is that it's a way of prying into individuals' minds. The fact is, we're really much more interested in aggregate data with which we can begin to form conclusions about different groups -- whether defined by gender, age or demography."

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