An fMRI study of surrealistic advertising



First, a quick look at (some of) the scientific works which have investigated how fMRI might help in the understanding of the human brain’s responses to Surrealism.

[1] Matching reality in the arts: self-referential neural processing of naturalistic compared to surrealistic images. (Perception. 2012;41(5):569-76.)  (surrealistic pictures here)

[2]The Neural Basis of Object-Context Relationships on Aesthetic Judgment  PLoS ONE 3(11): e3754  (surrealistic pictures here)

Intriguing though they may be, the studies don’t have much to say about how surrealism might interface with the commercial money-making real-world – say, via advertising. But just such an investigation has been performed by Dr. Mohamed M. Mostafa, associate professor of marketing at the Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) (Kuwait).In his paper entitled The persistence of memory: an fMRI investigation of the brain processing of Surrealistic imagery in advertising (Journal of Marketing Communications, 2012, DOI: 10.1080 /13527266.2011. 653688) the professor alerts us to the perils of  ‘Blobology’

“Without testing theoretically driven marketing concepts, there is a chance of falling ‘unwittingly prey to exactly the kind of blobological approach that has received criticism in social and general neuroscientific circles’ (Lee and Chamberlain 2007, 23).”

The experiments, which showed surrealistic ads (like the one above) to observers in an fMRI machine, nevertheless bore fruit :

“Statistical analysis based on general linear model showed that, compared to other types of advertisements, Surrealistic imagery elicited greater activation in several brain areas including parietal cortex (BA 1, 2, 3, and 7), lateral parietal cortex (BA 39/40),
prefrontal cortex (BA 6/9), IFG (BA 45/46), ACC (BA 24), insula (BA 13) and amygdala.”


• The Wine Art image used in the study (shown above) is provided courtesy of the Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences department at the University of Toronto.

• The 2012 Ig Nobel NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE was shared by Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford [USA], for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon.

Errata :

• The ‘Wine Art’ ad appears to show a bottle of Marchese Di Villamarina 1993  (Sella & Mosca) rather than a bottle of Grand Marnier, as the paper describes.

“ … in an advertisement labeled ‘Wine Art’, we see a large bottle of Grand Marnier floating above the floor with no visible support in a direct parody of Magritte’s 1961 painting ‘Le Château des Pyrénées’ (Castle in the Pyrenees).”

• ‘Le Château des Pyrénées’ was painted in 1959.

• Grand Marnier is a brandy.