Neuroscience Applications in Research

March 31, 2024

The application of neuroscience to marketing research is a new field offering tremendous promise and, like neuroscience, the discipline requires great expertise and expensive technology that is not typically found in marketing research companies. The promise of neuroscience in marketing research is the potential for new information about unconscious, emotional consumer responses while traditional marketing research tends to err on the side of rational and cognitive responses.

As this is an important burgeoning science with some experts in neuroscience and marketing questioning its importance, this article explores several questions:

  • Does the application of neuroscience to marketing research make sense?
  • How might the marketer apply this technology in practice?
  • What actionable information might be gained?
  • What are the major pitfalls?

fMRI and EEG

There are at least two categories of neuroscience applications in marketing research:  functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI, measuring blood oxygen levels) and electroencephalography (EEG measuring "brain waves" / electrical activity in the brain). These technologies employ measurement of any one of several kinds of brain activity in response to marketing stimuli like brand communications and visual media. Such measures may estimate depth of engagement and / or storage in long term memory of selective parts of the targeted communications. Each technology has its particular strengths and drawbacks, but unlike fMRI, EEG and a closely related approach called steady state topography (SST) that also measures brain activity are relatively inexpensive and can measure sub second changes in brain electrical activity, viewing brain changes faster than the speed of thought.

The examples used in this article are drawn mostly from the measure known informally as “brain waves,” that is, electroencephalography or EEG.

Does the Application of Neuroscience to Marketing Research Make Sense?

The general idea that various measured brain responses are correlated with the consumer’s subjective experience and behavior has long been established. For example, if you get drowsy or if your attention becomes focused on an external event, your EEG and other measures of brain activity will often change in a partly predictable way. So far so good, but a major caveat is called for here—these methods typically require substantial technical expertise to be conducted accurately.

How Might the Marketer Apply This Technology in Practice?

One goal of marketing communications is to encourage consumers to choose a particular product or service. One way to judge the responses of consumers to an advertisement is simply to ask them, by conducting a survey or focus group.

One criticism of such approach is that substantial unstated or unconscious influences may not be captured by these traditional methods. Consumers may not accurately articulate their emotional reactions. Another approach is to measure brain responses directly while the subjects view a print, television, or web advertisement. In EEG technology, electrodes are placed on the subject’s scalp and “brain waves” are recoded while the subjects view the material. The data are submitted to be analyzed; typically proprietary methods adopted by a marketing research company. Currently, these methods vary from the very simple (most cases) to sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms. Conclusions about advertising effectiveness are then possible. In the case of a television advertisement, such outcomes might be based on the entire commercial or on individual parts.

What Actionable Information Might Be Gained?

Such brain activity measures cannot provide unequivocal predictions of buying behavior. However, they can estimate depth of each consumer’s attention, engagement, emotion and/or storage in long term memory of advertisements or even selective parts of the targeted advertisements. These predictions may then be evaluated by written tests, perhaps administered several weeks later.

What Are the Pitfalls?

The potential pitfalls of the application of neuroscience to marketing research are many and varied. In addition to EEG, various technologies like fMRI are employed by different companies. Each technology has its particular strengths and drawbacks. For example, while substantial detailed information about the brain can be obtained from fMRI that could be useful in marketing research, the technology is expensive and invasive. It also requires that the consumer be positioned within scanner which forms a strong magnetic field around the area to be imaged.

EEG is an inexpensive and valuable tool proven in a restricted set of brain diseases and cognitive studies. Given these successes, it is natural to ask how far EEG may be extended into other areas including application of neuroscience to marketing research, but a sizeable graveyard of failed EEG applications raises considerable caution.

For example, EEG methods may lack the appropriate technology. Scalp electrodes measure scalp currents and potentials, which typically include substantial artifact (biological noise) due to subject movements, scalp muscles, and so forth. Separating such artifact from genuine brain signals is no easy task; this problem has challenged an entire generation of brain scientists. Thus, we can be pretty certain that most commercial EEG systems are measuring more artifact than brain signals; in some cases, it may be all artifact.

One way to separate brain signals from artifact is to employ an EEG technology called Steady State Topography (SST), which also employs other sophisticated software to analyze the recorded data and make behavioral predictions based on various EEG timing patterns.

The Future is Here

At the time of writing, it appears that only one company in the world is using SST to effectively measure brain activity in response to marketing stimuli like brand communications and visual media. As the application of neuroscience to marketing research matures and develops, the marketing and business communities are likely to derive significant benefits from this technology as long as these professions recognize that not all approaches are technically sound, and that expertise and the right technology is required to advance this science.

Paul L. Nunez, Ph.D. is Vice President of Neuroscience Applications at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm located in San Diego. Paul is also Emeritus Professor, Tulane University, and the author of five books on the neuroscience of EEG published by Oxford University Press and over 100 peer reviewed academic papers on the same topic. He can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or at