Two different uses of technology to understand humans

Posted by on Sep 10, 2007 in Uncategorized | No Comments


Have been pondering the Adage piece I blogged about earlier, in the light of two things:

1. Roger‘s post on the same subject
2. News today of a camera/computer assisted means to make early diagnosis in some important genetic disorders

First, the medical use of 3D cameras and analytics software currently used for maxillofacial surgery: a smart way to diagnose certain genetic disorders like Williams syndrome and Aspergers in children (without using genetic materials) because the condition also produces typical facial changes. Thus (if your hospital has the kit) this would be a much cheaper, quicker and more appropriate means to get the right treatment to the right patients at the right time.

Peter Hammond of the Institute of Child Health in London has collected a library of images of healthy children and those with such disorders. Each image has 25k points and can quickly be compared to several typical. Now, I suspect this is not foolproof but IF it can provide a good indication of such condition and thus get a child the early care and treatment now believed to make such a difference, it would be worth every penny.

Now this seems to me to be good, practical science with real and tangible benefits: it re-purposes existing equipment rather than requiring new stuff, it offers value for money rather than huge individual on-costs and it provides the means to reduce the lifelong suffering of a large minority of children.

By contrast, the neuromarketing gang are offering the early versions of fancy technology at huge costs with no real benefit to anyone but themselves. As Roger admits, the Adage piece highlights the gap between claimed and real precision and certainty to encourage caution from users of such techniques.

“To the extent that the article encourages marketers to adopt healthy skepticism when viewing the latest brain-based marketing panacea, she has performed a valuable service. However, we would have liked to see an acknowledgement that neuromarketing and neuroeconomics are still in their infancy, and that there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that more research and better equipment will result in new levels of both understanding and predicting consumer behavior.”

(I naughtily suggested the following caveat: “This is based on a very naive and simplistic understanding of how brain activity, different stimuli and behaviour are connected. Indeed, their is precious little evidence linking specific brain activity and specific consumer-type behaviour as yet, but we haven’t really got time to explain that rather embarrassing gap in our approach. Please do not be misled by the high tech nature of our equipment into thinking this research will give you any greater certainty about what will happen if you do X or Y; we’re still very much guessing here.”

One more time then: we are nearing the end of the beginning for understanding the general principles of the relationship between brain activity and behaviour but no further.

And we’re extremely unlikely to get where the neuromarketers would like us to get: understanding the precise relationship between stimulus, brain activity and behaviour.

The biggest problem is that ours is a social brain not an individual self-determining brain: it’s the brain of a creature whose life consists largely of other people and interaction with them. Looking at it as if it were otherwise and the creature that owns it as an isolated agent is a pointless abstraction.

Keep up at the back, please