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Mind-reading machine to revolutionise market research?

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16th Mar 2010
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Market researchers may soon no longer need to worry over the accuracy of verbal feedback from focus or sample groups about how memorable their advertising campaigns are. They could instead take advantage of a brain scanner that enables them to read volunteers' minds.

Neuroscientists at University College London have used brain scans to delve into people’s thoughts and predict which films they were thinking about. The researchers asked six women and four men, with an average age of 21, to watch three film clips, each lasting seven seconds.

The clips showed different actresses performing three tasks – posting a letter, throwing a coffee cup in the bin and getting on a bike. The volunteers were then placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and asked to recall each clip in turn.

This process was repeated on multiple occasions and the scans subsequently analysed to detect the patterns of electrical brain activity generated by each clip. In the final stage, volunteers were returned to the scanner and asked to recall the clips at random.

The researchers found that the same pattern of brain activity manifested consistently for each clip that they thought about, which suggested that memories are fixed at least for the duration of the study.

Although the patterns in each individual’s brain varied, they showed remarkable similarities in the parts of the hippocampus that were active. The hippocampus is an area at the centre of the brain, which plays a crucial part in short-term memory.

As a result, a computer algorithm that studied the electrical patterns could accurately tell which film volunteers were recalling between 40% and 45% of the time, which was well above chance.

Professor Eleanor Maguire, professor of neuroimaging at the University, told the Independent newspaper: "We are not at the point of being able to put people in a scanner and read their thoughts. But we can predict from their brain activity what they are thinking and remembering."

The researchers used the same scanning technique in an earlier study to work out the locations of four men as they navigated their way around a virtual reality room. The pattern of brain activity was different for each of the four points in the room that they visited, enabling the team to work out where they were.

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