Neuro 101

History of Neuromarketing

The combination of neuro and marketing implies the merging of two fields of study (neuroscience and marketing). The term neuromarketing cannot be attributed to a particular individual as it started appearing organically around 2002. At the time, a few U.S. companies like Brighthouse and SalesBrain became the first to offer neuromarketing research and consulting services advocating the use of methods and knowledge coming from the field of cognitive neuroscience. In simple terms, neuromarketing suggests that understanding and predicting consumer behavior must include the perspective of neuroscience. A growing number of books have been published on neuromarketing, consumer neuroscience, consumer psychology, cognitive neuroscience and other related fields. For more, we recommend you go to our favorite list of books by clicking here.


The first scholarly piece of neuromarketing research was performed by Read Montague, Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in 2003 and published in Neuron in 2004. The study asked a group of people to drink either Pepsi or Coca Cola while their brains were scanned in an fMRI machine. While the conclusions of the study were intriguing, Dr. Montague did not provide a rationale for how our brain handles brand choices. Nevertheless, the study did reveal that different parts of the brain light up if people are aware or not aware of the brand they consume. Specifically, the study suggested that a strong brand such as Coca Cola had the power to “own” a piece of our prefrontal cortex. The PFC manages our attention, controls our short-term memory, and does the best of our thinking–especially planning. So according to the study, when people know they are drinking Coca Cola, they actually say they prefer the Coke brand over Pepsi and their PFC lights up. However, when they don’t know which brand they are consuming, they report that they prefer Pepsi instead. In this latter event, the part of the brain which is most active is not the EF but an older brain structure nestled in the limbic system. This brain area is responsible for our emotional and instinctual behavior.  The Coke and Pepsi study may have not been enough to convince many marketing researchers that neuroscience could help crack the neural code of our decisions, but it was certainly enough to start a new field. Since then, hundreds of studies have been performed confirming the correlation between consumer behavior and brain activity.

Understanding the Brain as an High-Energy Consuming Organ

Annonce Atelier NeuroMarketing 29-30 Juillet 2009 Paris version pdf_img_5In fact, the brain is responsible for all our consumer behaviors. To perform these behaviors and choices, the brain needs to use a lot of energy. Even though the brain is only 2% of our body mass, it burns nearly 20% of our energy. But most of the decisions we need to go through a day are managed below our level of consciousness. This explains why nearly 90% of our brain energy is necessary to sustain our rest state or default mode, a critical aspect of brain functioning which is largely performed below our level of awareness.  So it appears that we use about 10% of our brain consciously. Worse, we do not control the bulk of our attention since we are too busy scanning the environment for potential threats. Because nothing matters more than survival, we are in fact largely controlled by the most ancient part of our brain known as the R-complex or the reptilian brain. This structure includes the brain stem and part of the lower limbic system. The reptilian brain has developed over millions of years. It is pre-verbal, does not understand complex messages, and seeks pain avoidance over thrills. It is the part of the brain that makes us extremely selfish and drives our strong preference for mental shortcuts over long deliberations. The most powerful aspect of the reptilian brain is the fact that it is able to process visual stimuli without the use of the visual cortex. This is why we prefer images over words and experiences over explanations. Antonio Damasio, a well-known neuroscientist and respected author once said, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think”.

Introduction to the Nervous System

Neuromarketing helps marketers, advertisers and communication experts improve their understanding of the biological basis of persuasion and the effect of media in general on the nervous system. To grasp how neuromarketing delivers on this bold promise, it is important to develop a basic understanding of our nervous system which is what this section of our website is designed to do.

We recommend additional books and papers at the end of this section for those of you who want to improve upon this basic knowledge.

The Nervous System

The nervous system is composed of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS includes the brain and the spinal cord. The neurons and fibers outside the CNS represent the peripheral nervous system (PNS).


The brain has 4 lobes, 3 layers, 2 hemispheres joined by one critical structure called the corpus callosum.

The layers in the brain have evolved over millions of years. To top layer called the cortex is the most recent, the bottom part of the brain (also referred to as the subcortical) is most ancient. While the brain is fully formed at adolescence, the maturation of the circuitry is not considered complete until the mid-twenties. The last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a critical brain area for focus, attention, risk-assessment and working memory.


The purpose of the PNS is to connect the CNS to the limbs and other organs of our body. It is a web of fibers and neurons communicating instructions, information and especially alerts. It is divided in the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS)

The SNS is the part of the PNS controlling our voluntary movements via muscles. The ANS is the part of the PNS responsible for the involuntary or visceral responses. The ANS affects heart rates, digestion, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation and sexual arousal. The ANS responses are typically divided in two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The SNS is responsible for triggering arousal states during which our heart beats accelerate, pupils dilate, more glucose is produced and adrenaline is secreted while the PNS controls opposite responses aiming to bring the SNS to a calm and relaxing state.

Sensory System

The brain is processing an enormous amount of information coming from our senses (hearing, touch, sight, smell and taste). Reality is what the brain makes of it through complex computations performed by neurons often located in specialized areas dedicated to a particular sensory processing function. While we use all senses, visual is considered the most dominant sense since it uses nearly 50% of our entire energy, is supported by millions of fibers connecting the eyes to the back of the brain. Eyes predate the development of the cortex so many scientist consider that vision is still largely controlled by subcortical circuitry, especially for orientation towards or away from rewards and threats.

Chemicals travel from neurons are either excite or inhibit neuron transmission, they are called neurotransmitters (dopamine is a famous one involved in risk-reward responses)

While the visual cortex is responsible for the most sophisticated part of the processing, the brain has the ability to process basic visual stimuli in a tiny brain structure located in evolutionary ancient area called the Superior Colliculus (SC).

Tamietto, M., & de Gelder, B. (2010). Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nature Reviews Neuroscience(September), 1-13

Emotion and Cognition

Emotions are considered useful to us because they quickly guide our actions and decisions.  The reptilian structure has a critical role in the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that affect our emotional states. When we respond to stimuli, our default neurological mechanism is to trigger a bottom-up response, which means that our behavior  is mostly guided impulsively and emotionally. When we recruit higher cognitive functions, the response is described as top-down. While most of us believe we act and decide rationally, the evidence coming from the field of affective neuroscience especially suggests that we are much more emotional than rational in the way we decide. The neurobiological basis of emotions is a growing field of interest for many neuroscientists. While we can experience thousands of emotions, 8 are often described as the most basic or primal emotions guiding us to approach or avoid stimuli.

Useful Paper on Cognitive Neuroscience, Neuroeconomics and Neuromarketing


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No available papers.


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