Saturday, October 13, 2012

Surrealistic Imaging Experiment #2

Scene from Le sang d'un poète (1930, Jean Cocteau) 1

"It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it."
-Jean Cocteau 2

In our second installment of Surrealistic Imaging Experiments, Marketing Professor Mohamed M. Mostafa of the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait was interested in how the brain processes Surrealistic imagery used in advertising (Mostafa, 2012). He approached the background to his topic and the fMRI study itself in a very different fashion from Silveira et al. (2012), who performed Surrealistic Imaging Experiment #1.

In that study, the authors hypothesized that humans cannot directly relate to surrealistic images because "percepts violating an expected percept cannot be integrated effortlessly into a frame of prior experiences or expectations and therefore also lack the potential for self-reference" (Silveira et al., 2012). Reduced activation in the precuneus to surrealistic relative to naturalistic pictures served as the major support for this contention. However, self-referential processing is also associated with other cortical midline structures (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices), which were not differentially activated here. Furthermore, there was no mention of top-down input from prefrontal cortex, networks for processing novelty, or lateral temporal regions associated with semantic processing. This seemed odd to me, as I expected that surrealistic paintings would require greater processing resources than realistic paintings.

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The Persistence of Memory in Advertising

In contrast to the restricted frame of reference presented above, Mostafa (2012) provides a historical background of Surrealism and summarizes the major themes and techniques used by iconic painters such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Giorgio de Chirico (who influenced the Surrealists). He extends the reach of surrealistic imagery to marketing and popular culture:
Today, the influence of Surrealism extends to cinema and advertising. Some Surreal advertisements create ambiguity by juxtaposing incongruous visual and verbal elements in a way that deliberately defies reason. It is not surprising that advertisers seek to create unique, unexpected and dreamlike images for use in promotions because advertisers often try to gain consumers' attention to fuel their fantasies and to induce them to view a product in a new light. For this reason, the casually Surrealist image has become, in particular, a stock-in-trade of the advertising industry (Macmillan 2000; Denny 2001).

Mostafa then segues into a review of neuromarketing and the brain imaging techniques used to probe the brains of consumers (fMRI, MEG, EEG). The aims of the study are articulated below: previous studies have focused solely on investigating how consumers' brains process Surrealistic imagery in advertising. In this study, we aim to fill this void by investigating the neural correlates of Surrealistic imagery in advertising. More specifically, we aim to:

identify cortical areas that selectively respond to Surrealistic imagery in advertising and
test whether the elaboration and surprise hypotheses are supported within advertising context.3
Then, the specific hypotheses of the experiment are clearly elaborated after a review of the relevant literature:
H1: Surrealistic imagery in advertising will elicit more activation in brain areas associated with novelty detection such as the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

H2: Surrealistic imagery in advertising will elicit more activation in brain areas associated with emotional responses such as the thalamus and the amygdala.

H3: Surrealistic imagery in advertising will elicit more activation in brain areas associated with episodic-memory retrieval such as the precuneus and the parietal cortex.

As for the methodological details, the participants were 18 right-handed English speakers in their 20s. None were experts in art history. The experimental task (passive picture viewing) used a 2 x 2 factorial design of (1) Surrealistic advertisements (novel, repeated) and (2) congruent advertisements (novel, repeated).

novel congruent    repeated congr   novel surrealistic   repeated surreal

Figure 1 (Mostafa, 2012). Stimuli and presentation sequence.

Thus, the author took into account both stimulus novelty and stimulus repetition (using a modified adaptation design), the latter to examine a form of priming in which a relative reduction in neural activity is observed when a stimulus is repeated. The stimulus set of Silveira et al. (2012) might have been better matched on size, luminance, color saturation, and spatial frequency parameters, but each of their 16 stimuli were repeated 3 times. There could have been differential priming effects for surrealistic vs. naturalistic images, but we don't know. On the other hand, the presentation parameters and number of stimuli in Mostafa's study weren't clear to me, either. 4

Briefly, the results confirmed the major hypotheses:
Surrealistic imagery elicited greater activation in several brain areas including the parietal cortex (BA 1, 2, 3), the precuneus (Brodmann area (BA) 7), the lateral parietal cortex (BA 39/40), the prefrontal cortex (BA 6/9), the IFG (BA 45/46), the ACC (BA 24), the insula (BA 13) and the amygdala. This result suggests that, compared to other types of advertisements, Surrealistic advertisements are processed in different functional brain pathways. This finding lends strong support to the elaboration and surprise hypotheses, which postulate that incongruous stimuli elicit increased processing that leads to more distinct and robust memory traces.

The novelty and distinctiveness of the Surrealistic images presented here in Surrealistic Imaging Experiment #2 required greater subcortical and cortical processing resources (including in the precuneus) than did the congruent images, in contrast to the detachment and alienation suggested by Surrealistic Imaging Experiment #1. How do we account for this discrepancy? What is the logical explanation?

"Our brains are dulled by this incurable mania for reducing the unknown to the known, to the classifiable. The desire for analysis wins out over feeling. It results in lengthy statements whose persuasive force derives from their very strangeness, and only impress the reader by recourse to an abstract vocabulary, which is moreover quite ill-defined."

-from the Surrealist Manifesto, by André Breton (1924)

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1 From Blood of a Poet: spectator as spiritualist
The film is essentially an exploration into the creative process; a self-conscious exploration of the subconscious, even the unconscious. Cocteau states that he was not thinking while he made the film but allowed images and ideas to present themselves to him, almost like the improvisation of a Jazz musician. Cocteau repeatedly spoke in interviews of the mysterious other self within an artist, saying that a poet (and by this he means artist of any genre) is a medium for the strange force which exists within him. He doesn’t shape this force, but rather the force shapes him. “My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinet maker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult”
2 This sly comment from Cocteau is not true; André Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

3 On memory, bizarreness, elaboration and surprise:
Prior behavioral research has also investigated visual imagery mnemonics and Surrealism in advertising. This line of research suggests that Surrealistic advertisements are likely to be processed more extensively than non-Surreal advertisements. For example, O'Brien and Wolford (1982) suggested that bizarre images increase the distinctiveness of items. Houston, Childers, and Heckler (1987) found that pictorial information incongruent with prior expectation is more difficult to comprehend and stimulates more elaborate internal processing. Behavioral support for bizarreness effect is based on both the elaboration hypothesis (Merry 1980; Wollen and Cox 1981) and the surprise hypothesis (Hirshman, Whelley, and Palu 1989). The elaboration hypothesis suggests that incongruous stimuli elicit extra processing because such stimuli are more difficult to make sense within the context of expected semantic norms.
4 It doesn't seem like the contrasts presented in Table 1 and Figs. 5 and 6 were corrected for multiple comparisons, which is a problem. The Silveira et al. (2012) study was methodologically superior in this specific realm.


Mohamed M. Mostafa (2012). The persistence of memory: an fMRI investigation of the brain processing of Surrealistic imagery in advertising. Journal of Marketing Communications DOI: 10.1080/13527266.2011.653688

Silveira S, Graupmann V, Frey D, Blautzik J, Meindl T, Reiser M, Chen C, Wang Y, Bao Y, PöppeI E, Gutyrchik E (2012). Matching reality in the arts: self-referential neural processing of naturalistic compared to surrealistic images. Perception 41:569-76.

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