Searching for the Why of Buy
Pictures of products danced in his head.

There was an Apple iPod, then a black Aeron chair. A coffeepot by Capresso and a washing machine by Dyson. Christian Dior followed by Versace, Oakley, Honda, Evian and Louis Vuitton.

Each icon of commercial design — 140 in all — was projected onto goggles covering the eyes of a 54-year-old, college-educated, middle-class white male.

The volunteer's head was cradled inside a 12-ton medical imaging scanner at Caltech, held firmly in place at the focal point of a pulsing magnetic field. The chamber reverberated with a 110-decibel sandblaster roar.

Behind a double-thickness of shatterproof glass, Steve Quartz, 42, and Anette Asp, 28, monitored the flicker of his thoughts in color-coded swirls on a computer display.

The two Caltech researchers were investigating the effect of perhaps the most pervasive force in a consumer culture — marketing — on the most complex object in the world: the human brain.

Quartz, director of the school's social cognitive neuroscience laboratory, and Asp, his project manager, were seeking evidence in the subject's brain of an all but indefinable quality of fashion and product branding — the subjective essence that makes an object irresistibly cool.

As the magnetic signals hammered the air, the subject's brain told them things that his mind did not know.

Psychologists and economists are using sophisticated brain scanners to tease apart the automatic judgments that dart below the surface of awareness.

They seek to understand the cellular sweetness of rewards and the biology of brand consciousness. In the process, they are gleaning hints as to how our synapses might be manipulated to boost sales, generate fads or even win votes for political candidates.

They have glimpsed how the brain assembles belief.

* * * * *


The why of buy is a trillion-dollar question.

By one estimate, 700 new products are introduced every day. Last year, 26,893 new food and household products materialized on store shelves around the world, including 115 deodorants, 187 breakfast cereals and 303 women's fragrances. In all, 2 million brands vie for attention.

To find profit in so many similar items, marketers try to brand a product on a buyer's mind. Such efforts put the average American adult in the crosshairs of as many as 3,000 advertising messages a day — five times more than two decades ago.

Children are exposed to 40,000 commercials every year. By the age of 18 months, they can recognize logos. By 10, they have memorized 300 to 400 brands, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. The average adult can recognize thousands.

"We are embedded in an enormous sea of cultural messages, the neural influences of which we poorly understand," said neuroscientist Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "We don't understand the way in which messages can gain control over our behavior."

That is starting to change. By monitoring brain activity directly, researchers are discovering the unexpected ways in which the brain makes up its mind.

Many seemingly rational decisions are reflexive snap judgments, shaped by networks of neurons acting in concert. These orchestras of cells are surprisingly malleable, readily responding to the influence of experience.