Thursday, January 29, 2009

Buy-ology: Caveat emptor!

Sr. Helena loaned me a copy of "Buy-ology" by Martin Lindstrom. You've heard about the psychology of advertising, right? Well this is a book about the physiology of advertising: specifically, about the way our brains process and respond to advertising, logos, brands, subliminal advertising (you thought they didn't do that?), and so on.
I bookmarked several places, one of which intrigued me in a very particular way. Lindstrom got a group of cloistered Carmelites to submit to his brain MRI tests, so he could track the parts of the brain that are most active in religious experience and other forms of relationship. (Brain activity uses lots of oxygen, so they can trace the iron-rich, oxygen-bearing red blood cells as they race to the areas that are most engaged.) He also did similar MRIs with another group of ordinary consumers. Lindstrom wasn't looking for the so-called "God gene" or even God-lobe. He was looking for which parts of the brain are active when we are "connecting" to a brand or product.
And he found it.When the Carmelite sisters were recalling a particularly intense and meaningful religious experience, and when the ordinary consumers (a relatively devout group of them, in fact) were presented with sacred images, their brains lit up in the same zone. No real surprise there.
But when the devout consumers were presented with images of high-end items like iPhones and Ferraris, their brain activity shot up in the very same region. (Other respectable, internationally known brands with less prestige did not provoke the same reaction.)
This seems more than just interesting to me. I found myself relating this to the vow of poverty, and seeing the vow in a new and remarkable light. How astute the earliest anchorites and monastics were in making poverty a linchpin of their spiritual lives! It is almost as if they intuited that their worship would be compromised not merely in an external way, by the "distraction" of worldly goods, but in some profoundly human way, unless they lived in radical poverty.
And isn't there some connection with the whole temptation to idolatry? After all, people can be very "faithful" when it comes to brand loyalty. They manifest "devotion" by wearing the designer's name or label on their very heart.
The book is interesting and engagingly written; it may even bear in a direct way on how we evangelize. But for now, I'm struck by this revelation of what material goods, the really "good" stuff, means for us. We can deceive ourselves in many ways, but our brain activity is telling us the unvarnished truth. You cannot serve God and mammon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. In my own family, we have a budget of '0' which means we try not to buy anything unless it's necessary, so we save and save, and then buy that reference book or violin, colorful patches for covering clothing stains, or set of underwear on sale. It's amazing how undeterred the habit of not buying anything makes decision-making when faced with the array of things to buy presented in magazines, on TV, etc. On the other hand, with the present economy, one might almost feel obligated to find the need to buy something just to keep the fellow citizen in a job...