Just as practicing the piano or learning to read can physically alter areas of the cerebral cortex, the intense, repetitive stimulation of marketing might shape susceptible brain circuits involved in decision-making.
"This is a way of prying open the box and seeing what is inside," said psychologist Jonathan Cohen, director of Princeton University's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind & Behavior.
Inside the Caltech scanner, faces flashed before the subject's eyes.
Each one was famous — an easily recognized emblem of celebrity marketed as heavily as any designer label.
Each triggered a response in the volunteer's brain, recorded by Quartz and Asp with Caltech's $2.5-million functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) and then weighed against the volunteer's responses to a 14-page questionnaire.
Uma Thurman. Cool.
Barbra Streisand. Uncool.
Justin Timberlake. Uncool.
Al Pacino. Cool.
Patrick Swayze. Very uncool.
The volunteer's brain cells became a focus group.
In his mind's eye, the celebrities triggered many of the same circuits as images of shoes, cars, chairs, wristwatches, sunglasses, handbags and water bottles.
For all their differences, objects and celebrity faces were reduced to a common denominator: a spasm of synapses in a part of the cortex called Brodmann's area 10, a region associated with a sense of identity and social image.
"On first pass, there might seem to be nothing in common between cool sunglasses, cool dishwashers and cool people," Asp said. "But there is something that these brains are recognizing — some common dimension."
None of these neural responses come consciously to mind when a shopper is browsing brand labels.
Much of what was traditionally considered the product of logic and deliberation is actually driven by primitive brain systems responsible for emotional responses — automatic processes that evolved to manage conflicts between sex, hunger, thirst and the other elemental appetites of survival.
In recent years, researchers have discovered that regions such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus are dynamic switchboards that blend memory, emotions and biochemical triggers. These interconnected neurons shape the ways that fear, panic, exhilaration and social pressure influence the choices people make.