"Is it possible that such a neuroimaging approach could create a 'super heroin of food,' a product so delicious that all but the most ascetic individuals would find it irresistible? It is an extreme but real possibility."
Lab experiments with rats, he said during the interview, show that such a scenario is not all that far out. He said an electrode, placed in the pleasure center of a rat's brain, and activated by a lever that the rat can push, proves that point.
"Every time the rat presses on the lever, it gets an electrical shock in the pleasure center," he said. "It's so much more pleasurable than food or sex or anything else that the rat just continues doing it. It doesn't stop until it dies."
The pleasure center is very real, by the way. It lights up when a human takes recreational drugs, which partly explains why drugs are so addictive.
That's a little scary, but Ariely emphasized that none of this means a sales person will be able to read your mind when you walk into the store. A person has to agree to have a brain scan before it can be conducted, and an MRI is more than a little obtrusive. It's a big, noisy machine, and the person lies inside it during the scanning.
It's also very expensive, which is one of the drawbacks to neuromarketing.
Neuromarketing, so far, has been limited to advertising, but it has invaded many different domains.
Daimler-Chrysler found a few years ago that a sportier car lights up the reward centers in the male brain, which may explain ads showing a stuffy Mercedes-Benz performing like a racecar.
Ariely believes the real future of neuromarketing lies in product development, not just advertising or marketing.
Someone in an MRI, for example, can respond to a virtual reality image, or food that can be consumed or piped into the machine.
"The real hope for functional MRI is actually before the product exists," he said. "Imagine that you have 20 possible products, and you're not sure which one would work the best. You can create a virtual presentation" for a person inside an MRI and see which areas of the brain light up. Then you build the one that works, not the 19 that didn't.
MRI is only one of several systems used in modern studies of the brain.
Researchers also use electroencephalography, which uses electrodes applied to the scalp to measure changes in the electrical field of the brain; magnetoencephalography, which measures changes in the magnetic field produced by the brain; and various sensors to measure changes in physiology resulting from stimulation of the brain.
At this point, it is too early to tell which direction neuromarketing will take. Ariely and Berns worry that "manufacturers could use neural information to coerce the public into consuming products that they neither need nor want." They hope, instead, that it will be used to create better products.
And of course, at some point, there will probably be a pretty strong reaction from the public. There has been some opposition, and a little public discussion, but not much.
A few decades ago advertisers were leaning toward something called subliminal priming. A prompt, like a soft drink can, flashes across the movie screen so quickly that the viewer doesn't even notice it. But the image remains imbedded in the person's memory, and sales, theoretically, soar.
Public outrage over the possibility of becoming consumer zombies doomed subliminal priming, although it remained a fertile field for researchers.
So there is always the possibility that neuromarketing will become "yesterday's fad," as Ariely put it. But probably not. This isn't the 1960s anymore. Back then, advertisers could only guess about whether the brain had a pleasure center, or reward center. Now we not only know it's real, we have dead rats to prove how powerful it is.