Everyone’s talking about eye-tracking, neuroscience, fMRIs etc… It’s as though we’ve gotten our mits onto a fabulous new car and just can’t wait to push our foot to the floor to see how fast she’ll go.
Money, money, money…
But exactly how excited should be we about this new field and its technology? Whilst it’s fun and interesting to see which parts of your brain light up when you’re exposed to different stimuli, we’re still a long, long way off from conceiving a unified theory of the brain. And yet marketing, advertising and film companies are coming in their droves to plug in, light up and sell out.
Neuroscience – a tool in its infancy
I’m not saying that there’s no use to this technology – I think it’s a fascinating field and one that could potentially lead to breakthroughs in the way in which we understand the brain and that more nebulous entity, the mind. But it is still very much a tool in its infancy. Consider the fact that our best marker for the perceived ‘effectiveness’ of a film is obtained by measuring parts of the brain active during attention, memory formation and emotion. This sounds good, right? Well yes, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t tell us much. The only thing these EEG and fMRI scans are measuring is localised activity, and even then in order to get any true understanding of the detail of what someone is experiencing, you’re more likely to get a better read from measuring their levels of neurotransmitters (for example a simple spit test to measure its cortisol content can give you a pretty accurate reading of the level of stress someone is under).
Never mind the fact that in order to measure our brain activity we’re having to be placed in artificial environments in order to take these measurements, a potentially confounding variable which could have a significant impact on the actual readings taken – especially if in an fMRI machine, a confined space that tends to elicit psychological discomfort from most of us. Furthermore, there are some parts of the brain that are active 30-40% of the time (like the programs that run in the background on your laptop), which don’t specifically relate to your levels of attention or emotion. To cite a causal relationship would be negligent at best.
Filling in the blanks
There’s really only so much actual information you can gather by monitoring in real time the brain’s general activity levels in response to a stimulus, such as watching a movie. A real-time scan can pinpoint particular scenes or moments that people respond with spiked activity or interest, but whether that interest or level of engagement can be deciphered into something more meaningful, such as the emotion of repulsion, disgust or morbid curiosity remains to be seen.