It’s important to be skeptical of attempts to simplify these kinds of findings as evidence for the brain’s “buy button”, or “approval meter.” Dopaminergic brain systems evolved to help their owners anticipate, forage, and act in the face of uncertainty, not predict trends in teenybopper stardom. Still, this study is among the most compelling in the nascent field of neuromarketing. It also helps to address critics of one of the field’s early eyebrow raising pledges: that a consumer’s brain might provide better information about future purchases than the consumer.
Similar to what others have seen, the authors of the teen song study found that experimental subjects were not skilled at predicting which songs would go on to become popular. This leads to something of a puzzle. How can a noisy, indirect, and heavily processed signal from the brain tell you more than asking someone “hey, do you like that song?”
The reasons are unclear, but there are many interesting possibilities. Of course, there’s always a chance this is due to some kind of methodological shortcoming. Maybe the questionnaires on song likability were poorly worded, or otherwise insufficient to elicit good guesses about a song’s future popularity. Another possibility is that we’re a bit dishonest with ourselves. When asked which songs we most like, we might bow to perceived expectations, for example, downplaying our embarrassing inner rapture over Justin Bieber, or overstating our enjoyment of Miles Davis.
Alternatively, the problem may not be willful dishonesty, but rather simple ignorance about what goes on in our brains. There could just be a complex array of so-called ‘metacognitive’ processes intervening between the raw, visceral assessment of a song and our report of whether we like it. Enjoying a song in the moment -- which the study examined – may be relatively simple but hidden to self interrogation. By contrast, making a case, even implicitly, that you like or dislike a song probably makes additional demands on cognitive systems for memory (does this sound like other things I like?) and forecasting (is this a cool, potentially popular riff, or just weird?). For someone in the business of predicting a hit, all of this ‘thinking about liking’ may just be noise.
Which raises yet another, admittedly speculative, possibility. Perhaps songs or other pop culture ideas don’t necessarily become popular because they’re likable by some common, aesthetic criteria that can be easily articulated. It may be that what was observed in the brain scans collected by Bern and Moore wasn’t so much a correlate of pleasure, or intrigue, but something more like ‘catchiness.’ If that’s the case, we may have been given a glimpse of new ideas and memes, just starting to take hold in the brain.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.