The same primitive impulses that helped early man survive against the evolutionary odds are drawing shopper Denam Drew to a pair of tan suede shoes. At least that's the theory behind neuromarketing, an emerging field that uses the tools of neuroscience to understand the secrets of the consumer brain.

Drew is holding the shoe in his hand while researcher Adam Spadaro stands behind him watching his brain waves light up a computer screen in colourful flares of red, yellow and green. All of this is possible because Drew is wearing an  electroencephalogram (EEG) cap with electrodes placed all over his head, recording the electrical impulses on the surface of his brain. He's also wearing eye tracking goggles to reveal exactly what he's looking at when the computer records a flash of emotion.

"The goggles use the pupils as a reference point to track where your eyes are looking and wherever the eyes go, that's a measure of the attention of the brain and that's key information for marketers," Spadaro says. He's completing a PhD in cognitive psychology at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, but at the same time he's using his scientific knowledge to help get one of Canada's first neuromarketing companies off the ground.

"It would be really useful for a brand to know if this product is or is not capturing a consumer's attention," Spadaro says, struggling to balance his laptop computer in the middle of the shoe store and, at the same time, monitor the flashing images of Drew's brain on the screen.

"It's really giving you a lot of insight into his emotional response, much more so than if you were just to ask him how he’s feeling. Sometimes you can get a truer response to his emotion. That offers a lot of insight that neuroscience has been taking advantage of for several decades now and marketers are now beginning to take advantage of it."

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Neuromarketer Diana Lucaci adjusts eye tracking goggles on shopper Denam Drew. Lucaci uses new technologies to measure consumers' engagement, attention and memory. () (CBC)

Diana Lucaci is also here at this Toronto shopping centre to supervise the research. She is the founder of True Impact Marketing, which she says is the first and only neuromarketing research company in Canada that uses both EEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to try to read consumers' minds. Her company owns the EEG cap and eye tracking goggles, but when she wants to use an fMRI machine, she has to buy time from hospitals and universities.

"The three key metrics we measure are engagement, attention, and memory," she says. "We're able to measure levels of positive and negative emotion as well. A company would want to know if its brand elicits a particular emotional response, if it's positive or negative at a particular point in time," she says. "That is invaluable information for marketers because it takes a lot of guess-work out. You're not launching a campaign and crossing your fingers hoping you know what your customers feel and what they want."

"My formal education is in neuroscience from the University of Toronto," she says, "following that, I've worked progressively in roles in marketing and communications."

"As a marketer, I always wanted better tools before we went to market with a campaign. When you know that a campaign requires millions of dollars and putting it together takes months and months, and the only data you have is a survey, and often you don’t even have that, so you just cross your fingers and hope that people pay attention."

Traditional market research has always tried to analyze how consumers think and feel about a product or a brand, using focus groups and surveys. The problem is, sometimes consumers don't tell the truth. "In focus groups, what often happens is that you get people skewing their answer to what they think the marketer wants to hear or what will make them sound better in front of the other participants," Lucaci says.

But what if advertisers could bypass the thinking brain and see what's going on at a more primitive emotional level? The theory is that consumer motivation starts there, with a series of brain chemical triggers rooted in primal neural circuits that evolved to help humans make decisions that would help or hinder survival. Assuming consumer choice is not purely rational, but rather is strongly biased by emotion, neuromarketers believe that if they can read pleasure or disinterest at this unconscious level, they can better predict what consumers will buy or avoid.

How the brain makes consumer choices

One of the few studies to examine the brain activity of consumer choice attempted to answer an old marketing question: why do some people say they like Coke better than Pepsi?

Dr. Reid Montague, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, scanned the brains of test subjects while they tasted Coke and Pepsi. During the blind taste test, the brain imaging showed that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was active. "This area of the brain is strongly implicated in signaling basic appetitive aspects of reward," Montague wrote. So when the test subjects didn't know the brand name of the particular sweet, black liquid they were tasting, their brains processed the choice based on taste.

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What if advertisers could bypass the thinking brain and see what's going on at a more primitive emotional level?

When Montague asked the subjects which one they liked better, they were equally split between Coke and Pepsi. But when  Montague repeated the taste test, this time showing the test subjects a Coke can and telling them they were tasting Coke, suddenly new brain areas got involved: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus and the midbrain, areas that have been associated with memory and based on emotion.

"There is a dramatic effect of the Coke label on subjects' behavioural preference," Montague wrote in his paper. Once they knew they were drinking coke, the test subjects said they preferred Coke in the labelled cups significantly more than unlabelled Coke and more than Pepsi.

"We hypothesize that cultural information biases preference decisions," he concluded.

Lucaci cites this study as proof that consumer choice is not based on a rational judgment of which product is superior. "So what that tells us is that people regardless of their brain telling them, 'this tastes better,' people have a positive brand association with a product that overpowers the emotion of taste," Lucaci says.

Neuromarketing raises ethical questions

What does Montague think about the emerging field of neuromarketing, after this research? 

"Neuromarketing could be a legitimate pursuit especially in areas where one wants to determine how much someone values a product," he said in an email.  "In neuroimaging, this is a rapidly developing area — the study of valuation (not neuromarketing per se) — and there are many possible uses.  For example, it may be possible to produce neural focus-group approaches to certain aspects of branding, desirability, and so on.  Such approaches could in principle be cheaper and more reliable than other focus group methods."

"However, I do not see this kind of approach supplanting anything.  A person's purchase behaviour will always be paramount and the brain science will continue to develop."

But are there any ethical issues that should be considered? Could neuromarketing data be used to manipulate consumer behaviour?

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People need to be aware of neuromarketing and its ethical implications, said Ruth Lanius. (CBC)

"Of course you can influence the brain," said Ruth Lanius, a neuroscientist at Western University in London, Ontario, in an interview.  "I think it's interesting, how can we influence the brain at an implicit level, to get you more interested in something."

"It's something that definitely has ethical implications that need to be reviewed and discussed, and that people need to be made aware of," she told me.

In an interview, Queen's University behavioural neuroscientist Richard Beninger was asked if he believed the developments in neuroscience could be used to unconsciously influence human behaviour.

"I'm interested to understand how the brain works, that's what’s driven me for decades," he told me. "I find it difficult to say well I’m going to stop doing neuroscience because what we’re going to find is going to be so powerful, we're going to be able to change the course of mankind. As one small scientist with one small lab, it's hard to think that I’m going to have some big impact like you're talking about. But perhaps I have to start thinking about these things."

"We're learning more all the time and with knowledge, comes power, and with knowledge comes the potential to abuse the knowledge," he said.

Back in the shoe store, watching Drew scanning the shelves wearing eye tracking goggles, Lucaci dismisses these concerns.

"It's not any more dangerous than running a survey and asking people what they think and pressing a button to pick what product they like," she said. "This time, though, we’re seeing the reaction without having to ask them anything. It’s a lot cleaner in that regard."

"It's literally impossible to design a super ad that will make people want to buy something they don't want to buy. The brain simply doesn't work like that," she says.

How did Drew feel about people watching his brain while he looked at shoes?

"It's a little weird but it’s not too invasive. I don't have too crazy reactions to shoes," he said, walking through the mall with his head wired up in an EEG cap and still wearing the eye tracking goggles.

All of this is just the beginning of neuromarketing in Canada. So far Lucaci's company has only one client, and she won't reveal the name until later next year when she intends to publish a case study. But the industry is growing. The first Neuromarketing World Forum was held last April in Amsterdam. And the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association says there are now more than 75 companies doing neuromarketing research all over the world.

This is the first in a four part series called Inside Your Brain on CBC's The National, World at Six, and CBC.ca exploring how modern neuroscience is changing the way we think about the way we think.  In part two, Kelly Crowe discovers how an ancient system in our living brains can explain our cravings for food, sex and relationships.