Joel Bleifuss

Researchers at Emory University Hospital have been conducting neuromarketing experiments on human subjects in order to find the “buy button” in the human skull.Emory’s “thought scientists” use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) “to identify patterns of brain activity that reveal how a consumer is actually evaluating a product, object or advertisement,” according to the Bright House Institute for Thought Sciences Web site. “Thought Sciences marketing analysts use this information to more accurately measure consumer preference, and then apply this knowledge to help marketers better create products and services and to design more effective marketing campaigns.” Thought Sciences, the world’s leading neuromarketing firm, is a subsidiary of Bright House, an advertising agency whose clients have included Coca-Cola, Pepperidge Farm, K-Mart and Home Depot.Thought Sciences boasts of having the “most-advanced neuroscientific research capabilities and understanding of how the brain thinks, feels and motivates behavior.” Consequently, the company can help corporations “establish the foundation for loyal, long-lasting consumer relationships.” In short, Thought Sciences intends on “revolutionizing the marketing industry” by discovering how to “motivate consumers to behave rather than just pique their interest.” Such knowledge would allow corporations to design advertising campaigns that will “drive their target audience’s behavior.”The cost for hiring Thought Science to scan the brains of 30 subjects with fMRI is $250,000. For that money, the client buys the expertise of Thought Sciences “chief researcher” Clinton D. Kilts, vice-chair for research at Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Kilts appears uniquely qualified to find ways to “drive” human behavior. He is an expert in addiction, having previously done research on “drug craving induced by mental imagery of drug use-related scenes.” He has experimented on monkey brains, delving into primate amygdalas, the “primitive” hot spot of the subconscious mind that responds to sex, danger and emotion. He also has done work on human brains, coauthoring an article titled “Ecstasy and agony: activation of the human amygdala in positive and negative emotion.”In an interview with, Jordan Grafman, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, said, “There may be certain combinations of pitches [corporations] can use to appeal to the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex [the thinking part of the brain].”Commercial Alert, a marketing watchdog group, and a number of prominent psychologists have written Emory University President James Wagner asking him to stop the experiments. Their letter read in part: “Universities exist to free the mind, and enlighten it. They do not exist to find new ways to subjugate the mind and manipulate it for commercial gain. … Is Dr. Kilts now using his knowledge of addiction to sell products such as Coke? Is he working on mental mapping to induce product cravings through the use of product related scenes?”And has Bush’s focus group overseer, Karl Rove, eager to find ways to activate the human amygdala for political ends, employed the services of Thought Sciences? So far the company has one client, which it refuses to identify.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue