The goal is to stir up emotion. "I like to think of it as the reason [composer] John Williams is so successful," Hong said. "How can we create what he does naturally? What are the key messages that resonate with people?"
The theory is that electrical activity in the brain changes when emotion is experienced. The device picks up second-by-second fluctuations in the brain -- those in the right prefrontal cortex indicate anger or sadness while changes in the left prefrontal cortex signal enthusiasm. This information is processed with other physiological signals that measure emotional and cognitive reactions -- producing fever charts that track the intensity of "like" and "thought." Exactly what these changes reveal about specific advertising is a matter of interpretation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Voters' minds: A headline with an article in Sunday's Section A about technologies designed to examine the subconscious of the electorate said that neurologists were involved in the pursuit. It is neuroscientists who are employing the technologies.
What fires up circuits
EmSense has so far measured the reactions of more than 100 test subjects to campaign ads that have run in Iowa and New Hampshire.
When Bill Richardson, who has dropped out of the race, listed his accomplishments in one TV ad, viewers' brain waves flattened, indicating a lack of interest. When an Obama ad cataloged his newspaper endorsements, it also failed to generate much electricity.
By contrast, Clinton's use of the word "invisible" caused viewers' brain circuits to fire. Feldman surmised that the commercial tapped into subconscious fears and "created a need for the candidate."
After capturing subjects' brain waves, EmSense asked viewers to choose a few words to describe the ads. Although they called the Clinton ad "caring" and "strong," their description of the Obama spot as "hopeful" and "inspirational" showed they weren't completely in touch with their inner responses.
"They definitely weren't inspired," Feldman said.
TargetPoint, which worked with the Mitt Romney campaign, has taken a different approach, using an Internet survey that captures not only the answers to political questions, but also how quickly voters entered them; faster responses meant stronger convictions.
The results of the survey, which Lundry said was conducted as an experiment last summer, revealed a deep commitment among Mike Huckabee backers at a time when most national polls counted him out. That dedicated support might help explain why Huckabee was able to leverage a small base to became a serious contender, he said.
For all the high-tech sheen of the neuromarketers, skeptics say there is a limit to brain-tracking technologies.
Darren Schreiber, an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego, who has used brain scanners in his research, said the devices can't predict how people will vote. "People don't necessarily act on their subconscious thoughts," he said.
Hong, from EmSense, agreed that there was a degree of uncertainty in interpreting results. "There's no vote button in the brain," he said.
Several prominent researchers last year criticized the scientific validity of a study by Washington-based neuromarketers FKF Applied Research Inc. that used brain images from an MRI scanner to measure the emotional responses of undecided voters.
Pictures of Clinton activated the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that deals with emotional conflict. UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman, who cofounded FKF, and William Knapp, both Democratic strategists, said the scan revealed an ambivalence about Clinton that could explain why voters snubbed her when she was ahead in Iowa but then rallied behind her in New Hampshire.
But University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Martha J. Farah says the brain is complex and scans interpreted to indicate anxiety, for example, could have signaled happiness because particular brain areas process many emotions. "The scattered spots of activation in a brain image can be like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup -- ambiguous and accommodating of a large number of possible interpretations," Farah wrote on the Neuroethics and Law Blog, a key website for neuroscientists.
Beyond the questions of science, political consultant Cathy Allen, a director of the American Assn. of Political Consultants, wondered whether the American public was ready for neuropolitics.
She said the technologies could backfire -- especially during an election season in which voters are demanding authenticity from their candidates. Neuroscience could get in the way of establishing an honest relationship with the electorate, she said.
"Voters think that consultants spend all their time manipulating and packaging candidates and this will make them even more suspect," she said. "Manipulating the brain -- it's too much the magic man behind the curtain."