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What is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and how does it work?

If it is true that human beings are “rationalisers”, meaning that they make decisions first and foremost in an instinctive, emotional and unconscious way, with reason intervening only later, then it is clear that, in order to understand where our behaviour originates and what processes determine it, it is necessary to study what happens in our brain, investigating which areas are activated during decision making, and why.

It is with this aim in mind that neuromarketing uses functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

What is functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI?

Used primarily in neurology and medical fields that study the brain, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, also known as fMRI, is a technique that investigates the anatomy or function of the brain, used specifically to determine which areas of the brain are activated when performing a given task or assignment.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging involves the use of a scanner which, by exploiting the “nuclear” properties of atoms in the presence of magnetic fields, makes it possible to observe and localise brain activity through haemodynamic changes. These are changes in the blood supply to different areas of the brain that occur automatically, depending on the type of activity we are performing.

How does functional magnetic resonance imaging measure brain activation?

Thanks to this instrumentation, it is possible to obtain many data on our brain’s activity: using statistical analysis, we can observe images that translate a person’s level of brain activation in response to a given stimulus at a given time.

fMRI can deliver functional images when the brain is at rest, without exposure to stimuli, and during the performance of a physical, cognitive or sensory task. This task is usually repeated several times in order to obtain a statistical average of the data that emerges from the fMRI in relation to brain activity.

How does neuromarketing use functional magnetic resonance imaging?

Unlike eye-tracking and biofeedback, fMRI requires expensive and bulky equipment, which explains why it is not among the most widely used neuromarketing tools.

risonanza magnetica funzionale principi di cialdini

Nevertheless, many neuroscientific analyses use and are supported by major university research centres, some of which specialise in neuromarketing: functional magnetic resonance imaging does not allow the performance of analyses outside the laboratory environment, at least for now. However, together with electroencephalography, it is essential if we want to observe what happens and which brain areas are activated in response to certain stimuli, even before the person under observation is aware of it.