There are two ways of nominally signaling a crossover between two academic disciplines or spheres of life. One way is to mechanically juxtapose two terms. Example: neuromarketing (neurology + marketing). The other one is to seamlessly weave one word into the other. Example: kinsumption.
Neuromarketing is the new buzz in the marketing and business circles these days. Some people adore the baby and wish it grows fast, others want it gone.
These days neuromarketing exists in labs and in a few research-and-consulting shops such as Neurofocus in Berkeley founded by A. K. Pradeep. Neurofocus studies brainwaves, uses eye-tracking devices and skin-response meters to measure the viewer’s response to TV commercials. Mya Frazer from AdAge initiated a recent flurry of blogs by presenting expert opinions against neuromarketing. Although some neuromarketing tools (such as electroencephalography) are inexpensive and portable, many say that it does not yield useful results, it is intrusive, and it is naive. John Winsor points out that culture (hybrid cars in Boulder vs. trucks in Cody) is a better predictor of the consumer’s behavior and his response to advertising. Mark Earls echoes him by saying that “the major influence on human behavior is other people (real or virtual, perceived or imagined) and not the volition of the individual agent.”
For a sociocultural anthropologist, this debate is painfully familiar. Academics have been waging wars over nature vs. culture for decades. Between 1999 and 2007, my alma mater, Stanford University, used to have two departments of anthropology: Anthropological Sciences would spin an anthropology off genes, the brain and the environment, while Cultural and Social Anthropology would derive its interpretations from culture, creativity and political economy. This year Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences put an end to this short-lived institutional sepraration and reunited the two warring camps into a single Department of Anthropology. Now it has a rich and fine texture.
For some companies, the real goal is devising a perfect consumer, the one whose brain is pre-wired to respond positively to an ad and make the body storm off to the mall. For other companies, designing a perfect product is key. On the one side of the spectrum we have labs like Neurofocus, on the other creative boutiques such as Fahrenheit 212, Ideo, Insight, Ziba Design who use a trial-and-error approach to help companies design products that will incorporate cultural and consumer insight right away. I predict that product design will gain more success in the marketplace but brain design will not go away for a simple reason that brain matters. While it is true that we are influenced by “others,” or by “culture” around us, those others are specific to the individual. People live their lives enveloped in very specific (sometimes unique, but usually partially shared) networks of significant others. “Friends and family” is an abstraction. “My friends” and “my family” are the real thing. The brain as a highly-complex interactive organ promises access to these microsocial circles that are eventually responsible for who each one of us is. (Academics call this process “subjectivation,” “subjectification,” or “individualization.”)
Brain hemispheres are asymmetrical: the left hemisphere controls logic and science, the right hemisphere language and art. In our demographic samples there are men and women, older people and younger people, but also left-brained and right-brained people. All these binaries are equally natural and cultural. A left-brained person will solve a puzzle even if the puzzle makes no sense in the real world. A right-brained person will hardly be able to think in abstract terms but he will wisely reject an absurd puzzle. Culture, animate and inanimate nature (think of chirality in chrystallography) are all profoundly affected by these asymmetries. Brain asymmetries influence dexterity and facial structure. (That’s why brands are endorsed by strictly symmetrical celebrities and not by people whose faces are disfigured by the Down syndrome.) The fact that there are companies who try to design brains vs. companies who work on designing products is an immediate confirmation of it. Like everywhere else, symmetry and balance is a highly desirable state of mind.
Kinsumption is about interconnectedness, balance, and peace between holistic and linear perspectives.