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NeuroFocus Uses Neuromarketing To Hack Your Brain

Intel, PayPal, Pepsico, Google, HP, Citi, and Microsoft are spending millions to plumb your mind. Here's how it's done.

Neuroscience Brain Hack
Photo by Gene Lee

A.K. Pradeep knows what you like and why you like it. Take the sleek, slick iPad. Ask Mac lovers why they adore their tablet and they'll say it's the convenience, the touch screen, the design, the versatility. But Apple aficionados don't just like their iPads; they're preprogammed to like them. It's in their subconscious—the curves, the way it feels in their hands, and in the hormones their brains secrete when they touch the screen. "When you move an icon on the iPad and it does what you thought it would do, you're surprised and delighted it actually happened," he says. "That surprise and delight turns into a dopamine squirt, and you don't even know why you liked it."

Pradeep is the founder and CEO of science-based consumer-research firm NeuroFocus, a Berkeley, California-based company wholly owned by Nielsen Holdings N.V. that claims to have the tools to tap into your brain (or, as Woody Allen called it, "my second favorite organ"). You might say Pradeep was born to plumb the depths of our minds. The "A.K." in his name stands for Anantha Krishnan, which translates as "unending consciousness"; Pradeep means "illumination." Fortunately, he doesn't refer to himself as Unending Illuminated Consciousness, preferring, as is custom in his native region of India, a single name: Pradeep. "Like Prince or Madonna," he explains.

On this particular spring day, he's in New York to offer a presentation at the 75th Advertising Research Foundation conference. As he holds court on a small stage in a ballroom of the Marriott Marquis in Midtown, Pradeep seems to relish the spotlight. Swizzle-stick thin and topped with unruly jet-black hair, the effusive 48-year-old is sharply dressed, from his spectacles to his black jacket and red-and-black silk shirt, and all the way down to his shiny boots. He stands out, needless to say, from the collective geekdom gathered at this egghead advertising fest.

Speaking with the speed and percussive enunciation of an auctioneer, Pradeep is at the conference today to introduce his company's latest innovation: a product called Mynd, the world's first portable, wireless electroencephalogram (EEG) scanner. The skullcap-size device sports dozens of sensors that rest on a subject's head like a crown of thorns. It covers the entire area of the brain, he explains, so it can comprehensively capture synaptic waves; but unlike previous models, it doesn't require messy gel. What's more, users can capture, amplify, and instantaneously dispatch a subject's brain waves in real time, via Bluetooth, to another device—a remote laptop, say, an iPhone, or that much-beloved iPad. Over the coming months, Neuro-Focus plans to give away Mynds to home panelists across the country. Consumers will be paid to wear them while they watch TV, head to movie theaters, or shop at the mall. The firm will collect the resulting streams of data and use them to analyze the participants' deep subconscious responses to the commercials, products, brands, and messages of its clients. NeuroFocus data crunchers can then identify the products and brands that are the most appealing (and the ones whose packaging and labels are dreary turnoffs), the characters in a Hollywood film that engender the strongest emotional attachments, and the exact second viewers tune out an ad.

These corporations share the same goal: to mine your brain so they can blow your mind with products you deeply desire.

Pradeep and his team in Berkeley are hardly the first to make a direct connection between brain function and how it determines consumer behavior. Advertisers, marketers, and product developers have deployed social psychology for decades to influence whether you buy Coke or Pepsi, or a small or an extra-large popcorn. Like the feather weight of that mobile phone? Suddenly gravitating to a new kind of beer at the store? Inexplicably craving a bag of Cheetos? From eye-deceiving design to product placement gimmickry, advertisers and marketers have long exploited our basic human patterns, the ones that are as rudimentary and predictable as Pavlov's slobbering dog.

NeuroFocus CEO A.K. Pradeep thinks that traditional focus groups are a Cro-Magnon form of market research.
NeuroFocus CEO A.K. Pradeep thinks that traditional focus groups are a Cro-Magnon form of market research. | Photo by Gene Lee

NeuroFocus, however, promises something deeper, with unprecedented access into the nooks and crannies of the subconscious. It's a tantalizing claim, given that businesses spend trillions of dollars each year on advertising, marketing, and product R&D, and see, by some estimates, 80% of all their new products fail. The hope that neuroscience can provide more accurate results than traditional focus groups and other traditional market research is why Citi, Google, HP, and Microsoft, as well as soda companies, brewers, retailers, manufacturers, and media companies have all become NeuroFocus clients in the past six years. When salty-snack purveyor Frito-Lay looked to increase sales of its single-serve 100-calorie snacks to women, it tapped NeuroFocus, whose research informed new packaging and a new ad campaign. CBS partnered with the firm to measure responses to new shows and TV pilots; Arts & Entertainment (A&E) had NeuroFocus track viewers' second-by-second neurological reactions to commercials to ensure that its programs work with the ads that fund them; and Pradeep's team helped ESPN display the logos of its corporate advertisers more effectively on-air. California Olive Ranch had NeuroFocus test its olive-oil labels for maximum appeal. And, as we'll see later, Intel hired the company to better understand its global branding proposition, while PayPal sought a more refined corporate identity.

These corporations vary widely, but they share a fundamental goal: to mine your brain so they can blow your mind with products you deeply desire. With NeuroFocus's help, they think they can know you better than you know yourself.

Orange cheese dust. That wholly unnatural neon stuff that gloms onto your fingers when you're mindlessly snacking on chips or doodles. The stuff you don't think about until you realize you've smeared it on your shirt or couch cushions—and then keep on eating anyway, despite your better intentions. Orange cheese dust is probably not the first thing you think of when talking about how the brain functions, but it's exactly the kind of thing that makes NeuroFocus, and neuromarketing in general, such a potentially huge and growing business. In 2008, Frito-Lay hired NeuroFocus to look into Cheetos, the junk-food staple. After scanning the brains of a carefully chosen group of consumers, the NeuroFocus team discovered that the icky coating triggers an unusually powerful response in the brain: a sense of giddy subversion that consumers enjoy over the messiness of the product. In other words, the sticky stuff is what makes those snacks such a sticky brand. Frito-Lay leveraged that information into its advertising campaign for Cheetos, which has made the most of the mess. For its efforts, NeuroFocus earned a Grand Ogilvy award for advertising research, given out by the Advertising Research Foundation, for "demonstrating the most successful use of research in the creation of superior advertising that achieves a critical business objective."

This seemingly precise way of unveiling the brain's inner secrets is the ultimate promise of neuromarketing, a science (or perhaps an art) that picks up electrical signals from the brain and spins them through software to analyze the responses and translate those signals into layman's terms. While evolving in tandem with advances in neuroscience, the field owes much to a study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine in 2004 to investigate the power of brand perception on consumer taste preferences. Based on the famous Coke vs. Pepsi tests of yesteryear, volunteers had their brains scanned in an MRI as they sampled each beverage. When they didn't know what they were drinking, half liked Coke and half liked Pepsi. When they did know, however, most preferred Coke, and their brain scans showed a great deal of activity in the cranial areas associated with memory and emotion. In other words, the power of Coke's brand is so great that it preps your brain to enjoy its flavor—and presumably to influence your purchasing decisions when you're in the supermarket.

Since the Baylor study, neurotesters have turned to the EEG as their standard measurement tool, rather than the MRI. For starters, the MRI is bulkier, harder to administer, and expensive. Far more important, however, is the fact that an EEG measures the brain's electrical activity on the scalp, while an MRI records changes in blood flow inside the brain. This means that an EEG reading can be done almost in real time, while an MRI's has a five-second delay. MRIs provide beautiful, high-resolution pictures, ideal for identifying tumors and other abnormalities, but they are useless for tracking quick-hit reactions.

For example, imagine that you are asked to generate an action verb in response to the word ball. Within 200 milliseconds, your brain has absorbed the request. Impulses move to the motor cortex and drive your articulators to respond, and you might say "throw." This process happens far too fast for an MRI to record. But an EEG can capture virtually every neurological impulse that results from that single word: ball.

This is where modern neuromarketing exists—at the very creation of an unconscious idea, in the wisp of time between the instant your brain receives a stimulus and subconsciously reacts. There, data are unfiltered, uncorrupted by your conscious mind, which hasn't yet had the chance to formulate and deliver a response in words or gestures. During this vital half-second, your subconscious mind is free from cultural bias, differences in language and education, and memories. Whatever happens there is neurologically pure, unlike when your conscious mind takes over and actually changes the data by putting them through myriad mental mechanisms. It's all the action inside you before your conscious mind does the societally responsible thing and reminds you that artificially flavored and colored cheese dust laced with monosodium glutamate is, well, gross.

With the instantaneous readings of EEG sensors, neuromarketers can track electrical waves as they relate to emotion, memory, and attention from specific areas of the brain: namely, the amygdala, an almond-shaped region that plays a role in storing emotionally charged memories and helps trigger physical reactions (sweaty palms, a faster heartbeat); the hippocampus, where memory lurks; and the lateral prefrontal cortex, which governs high-level cognitive powers (one being attention). Once the brain waves are collected, complex algorithms can sift through the data to connect each reaction to a specific moment.

Neuromarketers like Pradeep argue that this testing is much more efficient, cost effective, and precise than traditional methods like focus groups. While Gallup must poll roughly a thousand people to achieve a 4% margin of error, NeuroFocus tests just two dozen subjects for its corporate clients—and even that is a sample size larger than those deployed by leading academic neuroscience labs. This is possible because people's brains are remarkably alike, even though there are some differences between male and female brains, and between those of children and senior citizens. And NeuroFocus collects a massive amount of input, recording and analyzing billions of data points during a typical neurological testing project. This is the genius of neuromarketing, according to a booster like Pradeep. He promises an accurate read of the subconscious mind. Focus groups and surveys, on the other hand, give an imprecise measure of the conscious mind, of so-called articulated, or self-reported, responses. They are one step removed from actual emotion, inherently weak: like flashbacks in a film. They are fine for eliciting facts, less so for probing into what people really feel.

Ray Poynter of the Future Place saves his harshest criticism for neuromarketers: "They are overclaiming massively."

Not everyone agrees that neuromarketing is the next great thing, of course. Because its research has been primarily corporate funded and its tangible results primarily anecdotal, neuromarketing is not without detractors, who tend to lump it in with the array of businesses, like biometrics or facial mapping, that promise all sorts of new-wave marketing breakthroughs. Ray Poynter, founder of the Future Place, a social-media consultancy in Nottingham, England, colors himself a skeptic on all of them but saves his harshest criticism for neuromarketers. He believes they offer far more hype than science. "Neuromarketers are overclaiming massively," he says. "While it is likely to reduce the number of bad mistakes, and slightly increase the chance of good things happening, it's all a matter of degree."

Even so, it's hard to imagine neuromarketing proving less reliable than traditional market research. For decades, marketers have relied on focus groups and surveys to divine what consumers want, using these methods to solicit feedback on their attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and perceptions about an advertisement, a product and its packaging, or a service. Each year, hundreds of thousands of focus groups are organized around the world, and about $4.5 billion is spent globally on qualitative market research.

This kind of "mother-in-law research," as ad exec Kirk Cheyfitz calls it, has all manner of shortcomings. It's not statistically significant, so it's risky to graft your findings onto the population at large. One or two blowhards may hijack an entire panel, and researchers can, without knowing it, influence participants. The world has changed, and yet so much market research is still conducted the same old way.

"I bet you, long ago if you looked at cave paintings, there were a bunch of Cro-Magnon men and women sitting around a fire in focus groups wondering whether to go hunt mastodon that night," Pradeep says. "Today, our focus groups are no different." In the tale of our inner lives, we have always been unreliable narrators. Pradeep believes he can get at the truth.

When David Ginsberg joined Intel in 2009 as the company's director of insights and market research, he was something of an expert on the slippery nature of "truth," having spent 15 years working on political campaigns for John Edwards, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. Ginsberg was downright skeptical of neuromarketing, or, as he calls it, "nonconscious-based research." He thought it had more to do with science fiction than reality. But he also knew that Intel had been conducting market research as if it were still 1965, with surveys that were the equivalent of sending Gallup off to knock on thousands of doors. That may have worked decently in the days when a person bought a computer based on specs—processing speed, RAM, etc. But in an age where virtually every computer is sold with power to spare, Ginsberg knew that the rationale for buying a certain computer was as much emotional as it was rational. To compete in this new market, Intel the company had to understand how people felt about Intel the brand.

"If you ask people if they know Intel, something like 90% will say they know Intel," Ginsberg says. "Ask if they like Intel, a huge percentage will say they like Intel. Ask them [to rank or name] tech leaders, however, and we come out much lower on the list." Ginsberg felt that he needed to understand consumers' feelings at a deeper level: What words did consumers associate with Intel? Were these associations altered by one's culture? Ginsberg decided to run pilot tests with a number of market-research firms, and despite his sense of neuromarketing as mumbo jumbo, he included NeuroFocus. What he learned surprised him and turned him into a believer.

NeuroFocus structured its test for Intel as it does most of its market research, patterning it after something called the Evoked Response Potential test, a staple of neuroscience. Test subjects were paid to come to a NeuroFocus lab and put on a cap with 64 sensors that would measure electrical activity across the brain. Because the U.S. and China are two very important markets for Intel, NeuroFocus tested groups of 24 consumers (half men, half women) in Berkeley and in a midsize city in China's Sichuan Province.

In a quiet room, each test subject was shown the words "achieve," "possibilities," "explore," "opportunity," "potentiality," "identify," "discover," "resolves," and "solves problems." Each flitted by on a TV screen at half-second intervals. The subject was instructed to press a button whenever she saw a word with a letter underscored by a red dot. After several minutes of this subconscious-priming word test, she was shown a few Intel ads. Following this, the words were again presented on the screen, this time without the dots.

The exercise served two functions: First, the red dots focused the subject's attention; second, they gave NeuroFocus a baseline measure of the brain's response, since each time a test subject saw the red dot, her brain went "A-ha! There's a word with a red dot." Click.

Pradeep knows how to read your mind—so long as you put on that device first.
Pradeep knows how to read your mind—so long as you put on that device first. | Photo by Gene Lee

When NeuroFocus later analyzed the EEG readings, it looked for those same "a-ha" moments from the period during which the subject had viewed the Intel ads. The words that provoked the most such responses were "achieve" and "opportunity." Interestingly, women in the U.S. and in China had virtually the same response post-advertisements, as did American men and Chinese men. The differences were in the genders; on both sides of the pond, men and women had strikingly different reactions. "Achieve" prompted the most intense reaction among women, while men gravitated toward "opportunity. "

Says Ginsberg: "This was incredibly fascinating to us. There seem to be fundamental values across humanity." He believes that Intel would have never learned this through traditional market research and focus groups, where cultural biases come into play. He also concluded that there are differences in how men and women think, and that these differences cross cultural boundaries. This is not news to Pradeep, who points out that male and female brains are different, and not in a Larry Summers women-aren't-as-good-at-math-and-science-as-men-are kind of way. The female brain is our default brain when we are in the womb. But at week eight, about half of all fetuses are bathed in testosterone. These now-male brains close down certain communication centers in the brain while opening up others geared toward sex and aggression. In female brains, meanwhile, the communication pathways continue to evolve, intricate neural routes are constructed across both hemispheres, and areas dedicated to emotion blossom. Life seems to imitate a beer commercial, doesn't it?

Now Intel is changing its marketing strategy. "A brand that helps people achieve and offers opportunity has a phenomenal brand attribute," Ginsberg says. "It gives you a new perspective on things, to understand your consumer better." The NeuroFocus findings have informed the next round of creative advertising you'll see from Intel, due to emerge later this year. "I guarantee when you see these ads you'll see a straight line," Ginsberg adds. "The study gave us fresh insights to talk about things we didn't have permission to talk about before."

It is conceivable that Intel could have redirected its advertising toward achievement and opportunity with the help of focus groups. But Ginsberg feels, and Pradeep fervently believes, that neuromarketing has a much better shot at getting closer to the unconscious truth, and therefore proving more effective. Still, the difference between the two forms of research sometimes seems to be just a matter of degrees.

Barry Herstein left American Express to join PayPal in October 2007 as global chief marketing officer with the goal of giving eBay's transaction-processing division a coherent marketing strategy. After the first few weeks, he knew just how difficult the task would be. Almost every time he asked a PayPal employee, "What's the big idea behind PayPal?" the following response came back: "Safe, simple, wow!"

"Safe, simple, wow?" Herstein scoffs. "That's not a big idea. It's a tagline." It didn't even make sense. Wasn't any payment product supposed to be safe and simple? He supposed that software engineers might know that paying for things was complicated, but having worked at American Express and Citi, he knew that the consumer didn't think that was the case. And "wow"? He cringed. Then, after a series of brainstorming sessions and conversations with a broad range of customers, he hired NeuroFocus to help him figure out the basic concepts around which he could build a new global identity for PayPal.

As part of its standard methodology, NeuroFocus captures the subconscious resonance consumers have for seven brand attributes: form, function, and benefits, as well as feelings (the emotional connection a brand elicits from consumers), values (what it represents), metaphors (aspirations, challenges, lessons, or life events that seem connected to the product), and extensions (the unexpected and perhaps illogical feelings it inspires). Based on his earlier brainstorming sessions, Herstein asked NeuroFocus to home in on three attributes and create three phrases for testing within each. For function he offered "convenient," "fast," and "secure"; for feelings, "confident," "hassle-free," and "in the know"; and for benefits, "new opportunity," "on my side," and "empowering." The 21-person panel had 11 men and 10 women and was also segmented into regular, light, and non-PayPal shoppers.

According to NeuroFocus, "fast" ranked the highest in the function category. (Notably, "fast" was not acknowledged in any way by "safe, simple, wow.") In fact, according to the brain heat map that NeuroFocus created from the aggregated data, speed is a huge advantage that sets off extremely positive feelings, especially from regular users. The more people use PayPal, it seems, the more they appreciate how quickly they can close transactions. For the feelings category, "in the know" resonated best, and in benefits, "on my side" won out.

Examining brand attributes is a standard of traditional market testing, of course. Herstein ran a parallel, more conventional track at the same time as his NeuroFocus study, creating a conventional online survey. The results were significantly different. While the word "fast" resonated with this group, the phrase "on my side" wound up at the bottom of the benefits category, which was topped instead by "confident"—a word that had finished dead last among men in the NeuroFocus study.

Herstein trusted the NeuroFocus results, though, and set out to create a coherent global image for the company based on them. That image would humanize PayPal by emphasizing the outcomes it delivers, not the act of paying; nowhere in the new marketing would you find any dreaded, dreary images of two people hovering around a computer. "People don't want to see that," Herstein says. "They want to see people enjoying either what they just bought or the time that it gives them by paying fast."

Not everyone at the company was sold on his new approach. The heads of some foreign markets—Herstein declined to name which— predicted that the new campaign would bomb. Herstein says that his boss, PayPal president Scott Thompson, told him he was crazy—but Herstein was willing to stake his reputation on the new approach.

What happened? According to Herstein, when he changed PayPal's visual and verbal identity across the company's email and web pages, click-through and response rates increased three to four times. "I'm telling you, in the world of direct marketing, the words '400% improvement' don't exist," he says. "If you can go from 1.2% response rate to 1.3%, you'll get a promotion, right? And if you can take something from a 4% response rate to 16%? Unheard of."

"The mystique is that there's a way to turn consumers into robots to buy products. That's simply not the case," says one neuromarketer.

Herstein has left PayPal to join Snapfish and now sits on NeuroFocus's board as an unpaid adviser. While eBay confirms the basics of his account, it won't confirm his description of the outcomes from the marketing campaign he created; a spokesman repeatedly asked Fast Company not to include this information in our story.

This bid for secrecy is entirely in keeping with the aura around neuromarketing, an industry that is both highly confident about what it can deliver and very nervous about its perception in the broader world. Several neuromarketing firms were approached for this story, but the only one that would do more than provide vague descriptions of its work was NeuroFocus, which is by all accounts the industry leader. Out of dozens of its corporate clients, very few would agree to discuss their work with the firm.

Neuromarketing outfits are afraid of being branded as trendy voodoo science, no more trustworthy than palm readers. Such a perception, they believe, will wither with good results. Perhaps more worrying is the other end of the speculative spectrum, which posits that corporations armed with our neurological data will be able to push a secret "buy button" in our brains. This is a fear promulgated by, among others, Paul B. Farrell, a columnist for Dow Jones and author of The Millionaire Code. He calls this buy button your brain's "true decision-making processor," a "weapon of mass delusion." You end up like a computer "without virus protection" and "exposed to every Wall Street banker, politician, and corporate CEO with gobs of cash and a desire to manipulate your brain."

"There's still this mystique that there's a way to control consumers and turn them into robots to purchase products," says Ron Wright, president and CEO of Sands Research, a rival neuromarketing firm based in El Paso, Texas. "That is simply not the case." Nevertheless, after spending time with Pradeep, you get the feeling we've only just begun to tap the potential of this new movement. Pradeep is not a neuroscientist. He's a former GE engineer and consultant who became fascinated by neuromarketing after a conversation with a neuroscientist who sat next to him on a cross-continental flight. After seven years at the helm of NeuroFocus, he sees every product relationship in terms of the brain, like a virtuoso musician who hears music in everyday sounds, from the clackety noise of a woman's heels on a wooden floor to the melange of notes from a car engine.

On a sun-drenched afternoon in Berkeley, we tour the shops at the local mall. We stop in front of a Victoria's Secret plate-glass window and Pradeep points out the ambiguous expression of a lingerie model on one of its posters. He explains that the brain is constantly looking out for our survival and as part of that is always ready to measure another person's intent. Is that stranger happy? Angry? Sad? When an expression is not easy to decipher, we do a database search through our collection of faces—curious, worried, nervous, threatening—to choose which is closest to the one we see, and match it. "If the expression is easy to decipher, I hardly glance," he says. "But if the expression is relatively hard to decipher, she makes me open the cupboard of memory." Contrast this with the nearby Bebe store, where Pradeep shakes his head at the headless mannequins in the window. "Now that's what I call a crime against humanity. Money down the drain."

At the Apple store, we pause at a desktop computer and he explains why it's always better to put images on the left side of the screen and text on the right: "That's how the brain likes to see it," he says. "If you flip it around, the right frontal looks at the words and has to flip it over the corpus callosum to the left frontal lobe. You make the brain do one extra step, and the brain hates you for that." Pradeep loves Apple, and he loves to talk about Apple, in part because Steve Jobs never has been and probably never will be a client. (Apple doesn't even use focus groups. Jonathan Ive, Apple's top designer, famously said they lead to bland products designed to offend no one.) But the real reason he loves talking about Apple is that he believes the company has elevated basic design to high art, a hugely successful strategy that Pradeep thinks is justified by our most basic neurological underpinnings.

Which brings us back to that iPad. Pradeep claims the brain loves curves but detests sharp edges, which set off an avoidance response in our subconscious. In the same way our ancestors stood clear of sticks or jagged stones fashioned into weapons, we avoid sharp angles, viewing them as potential threats. NeuroFocus has performed several studies for retailers and food manufacturers and found that test subjects prefer in-store displays with rounded edges over those with sharper edges. In one instance, when these new rounded displays were rolled out to replace traditional store shelving, sales rose 15%.

But curved edges are only one reason for the iPad's success. We also like how the tablet feels, how sleek and well balanced it is. Signals generated by our palms and fingers, along with lips and genitals, take up the most surface area within our brain's sensory zone. The way a product feels in our hands can be a major selling point. It's why we prefer glass bottles to cans, which NeuroFocus product-consumption studies bear out, although it's not just the material, it's also the slender curve of the bottle and the ridges in it. The touch screen, too, is a mental magnet and can induce those hormonal secretions Pradeep likes describing.

Why we like these curves no one knows for sure. Perhaps our brains correlate curves with nourishment—that is to say, mommy. (Calling Dr. Freud.) In men, it could be sexual. One study asked men to view before-and-after pictures of naked women who underwent cosmetic surgery to shrink their waists and add to their derrieres. The men's brains responded as if they had been rewarded with drugs and alcohol. But this response to curves may be even more primal than sex, or beer. Another study suggested that men seek women with curves because women's hips and thighs contain higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids, which nurture babies' brains and lead to healthier offspring.

This is the flip side to our fears of neuromarketing: the potential to look at our choices in a new way that blends science, psychology, and history. Lately, NeuroFocus has been moving into product development, providing research to companies that will influence how products look, feel, and function before they hit the market. That's what the firm is doing with its Mynd crown of sensors. But Pradeep has visions that go far beyond testing products, packaging, and commercials. He imagines neurotesting as ideal for court-room trials: A defense attorney could pretest opening and closing arguments for emotional resonance with mock juries. And while NeuroFocus is not getting involved in politics, he says that competitors of his helped Republican politicians shape their messages for the 2010 midterm elections.

One stunning application of neurotesting is the work of Robert Knight, Pradeep's chief science officer, and a host of other neuroscience researchers who are trying to develop a way for quadriplegics to control their wheel-chairs just by thinking alone. When you watch someone move a hand to grab a can of soda, mirror neurons in your brain react as if you were grasping it yourself. Knight is studying which brain signals can be translated into software commands to drive a wheelchair. To further this research, Knight, part of the team that invented the Mynd, plans to give it away to scientists and labs around the world. And the next iteration, he promises, will be a big step up, with eye-tracking capability, a built-in video camera, and three times as many sensors for greater brain coverage. "If our limbs will not respond to the beauty of your thinking or your feeling, that is a horror beyond horrors," Pradeep says. "Restoring a little bit of gesture, a little bit of movement, a little bit of control to that beautiful mind is an extraordinary thing to do."

He seems sincere, passionate even, though of course I cannot read his mind.

Correction: Neurofocus is owned by Nielsen Holdings N.V., not Nielsen Research as stated in the original article.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.