OPINION1 February 2012

We have ways of making you talk

A group of scientists say they’ve found a way to tell what word someone is thinking of by studying their brain waves. It’s a trick that market researchers wouldn’t mind mastering, writes Bronwen Morgan.

In the news today are the results of a startling new study that demonstrate a method of interpreting language without speech, by observing the brain waves of patients as they think of words.

The study, reported in PLoS Biology, observed signals in a part of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus (STG), which has a number of functions related to the processing and comprehension of the sounds we hear, including speech.

It was found that, by monitoring brain waves in the STG while playing audio recordings of certain words and sentences being spoken, then mapping these brain waves against the syllabic patterns of the words, researchers were able to subsequently ‘guess’ which word a participant was thinking of from a list that was presented, simply by observing their brain patterns. A bit like Morse code for the brain.

Could the research industry exploit such techniques to creep closer to that holy grail of knowing what consumers are thinking without them actually having to tell us?

It is thought that this advance could allow patients who are physically unable to produce speech – but whose mental functioning is unimpaired – to communicate. But beyond the clear medical applications of this technology (and the long-awaited opportunity for frustrated girlfriends to know what their taciturn partners ‘are really thinking’) are there more commercial opportunities to be had from employing such advanced scientific methods? Could the market research industry exploit such techniques to creep closer to that holy grail of knowing what consumers are thinking without them actually having to tell us?

For years neuromarketing experts have offered ways of looking beyond verbal feedback and tapping into subconscious responses to brands and advertising by monitoring physical reactions such as heart rate, tracking eye movements and measuring brain waves. More recently the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has made it possible to see the specific areas of the brain that become activated when respondents are presented with a stimulus, allowing a deeper understanding of emotional response beyond mere attention and arousal.

All of this physiological feedback adds context to verbal responses. It allows researchers to look beyond what respondents say they think, by looking at how their body reacts in a more primal, reflexive way. Most of these techniques rely on measuring activity in older (evolutionarily speaking) parts of the brain, which operate instinctively and beyond our conscious awareness, and as such could offer a fascinating contrast to how research participants consciously decide they want to respond.

Given that the STG spans one of the ‘higher-order’ brain regions, it is associated with more conscious, sophisticated thought processes. In this way it may be less valuable as a way of enriching research findings, as it is more closely linked to speech-generation which is, in itself, a conscious response.

So while it may not represent the holy grail of insight, one clear and immediate application of this development is that it could allow research participants to achieve the dream scenario: offering their thoughts without having to pause between sandwiches.