How monitoring brain activity can help us better understand customer and employee experience

In this final post in our series about the different methodologies for investigating customer and employee experience (read our full academic paper), we’re going to look at some of the ways of actually scanning the human brain and visualising the activity taking place to better understand behaviour and decision-making.

The first thing to say is that none of these methods can tell researchers what people are actually thinking – don’t worry, scientists cannot read your thoughts. What they are able to do is monitor either electrical activity, blood flow or magnetic fields within the brain as an indicator of where and when greater or lesser mental activity is taking place. If we can correlate this activity with actual events, we can hypothesise the reasons driving that activity and, with clever experimental design, reach conclusions about their causes and how these might be positively influenced.


We can use this to monitor the impact of any changes we might make to a product or service experience in either a positive or negative way depending on what we are trying to achieve. If we want patients to be calmer before surgery, we should look to reduce brain activity in areas associated with anxiety and also slow their pounding, fearful heart rate. Conversely, if we are designing a new rollercoaster ride, we’ll almost certainly want to do entirely the reverse!

brain monitoring in customer research


Neuroscience is built on the foundations of the electrical properties of neurons, the building blocks of the brain. By monitoring the electrical currents produced by firing neurons in the brain using electroencephalography (thankfully EEG for short!), we can ‘see’ when and where this activity is taking place as an indication of different types of mental processes. However, because of the thickness of our skulls and the fact that the measuring electrodes are affixed to the outside to the scalp, we can only reliably measure this activity about an inch down. This means we are measuring activity in the ‘cortex’ – the outer layer of the brain. EEG has a very high temporal resolution – which means that we can detect changes in milliseconds – but its spatial resolution is relatively low. So although we can identify the general brain region where things are happening, the exact source of any specific activity is hard to pinpoint precisely. What’s great about EEG is that it can measure in real-time and in the real world as people go about their normal day – albeit that they will need to wear a cap that covers their head with a number of electrodes connected to it. This makes it ideal for studying individual behaviour (rather than interactions with others which would clearly be heavily influenced by the presence of such odd headgear) and for combining with other measures like eye tracking for example – looking at websites on a computer or an app on a smartphone – to see how brain activity is linked to visual attention.

EEG can detect both changes in the oscillation of brainwaves and also what’s called event-related potentials (ERPs). Our brainwaves occur in different frequency bands that correlate with different mental processes depending on their location. By experimenting with different stimuli and monitoring the resulting brain activity, we look to understand the impact of external events. For example, experiments have indicated that greater alpha wave activity on the right hand side of the brain is correlated with negative affect (the avoidance of stimuli), whereas on the left hand side of the brain it correlates more with positive affect (an ‘approach’ response). ERPs are direct reactions to sensory and/or cognitive events. Activity in different wave forms have been shown to correlate with, for example, negativity when mismatches between expectation and reality occur (the moments that we call Tripping Points®); to indicate emotional arousal (something we can also measure via electrodermal activity); and the capturing of attention due to a positive stimulus. By linking activity during product evaluation to product preference and actual purchase decisions, we can understand how different cognitive processes are triggered and therefore how they might be influenced – a key element in improving customer experience.

Using the same principles as EEG, magnetoencephalography (MEG) can also provide an insight into brain function by monitoring the changes in magnetic fields produced by electrical activity. This technique is better at spatial resolution, but is very expensive (because of the nature of the electrodes) and cannot be used outside of a laboratory.

brain activity customer research


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners can monitor the oxygenation of blood in the brain. Put simply, more blood is needed when are brains are active – it’s the reason why our brains burn 20% of our body’s energy despite taking up just 2% of our body mass. By tracking this blood flow, scientists can ‘see’ where and when this activity is occurring in response to events to provide insight into human behaviour and decision-making. fMRI is very good at spatial resolution and uses data to construct 3-D topographic models of the brain highlighting activity areas. This allows us identify specific areas of the brain that are active during tasks and thinking. However, its temporal resolution is relatively poor and activity cannot be viewed in real-time.

fMRI provides a fantastic resource for monitoring activity around attention, arousal, affect, reward, decision-making and memory and can investigate implicit processing, i.e. which brain areas are active when we are just thinking. It has identified the key areas for decision-making in the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) and shone a light on cognitive control and working memory to measure what self-report cannot. Although fMRI remains the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to brain function, it is purely a lab-based method at present (with subjects mostly lying motionless in a narrow tube while monitoring takes place) and, because of the immense computing power needed to process the output data, remains a lengthy and expensive option.

using fNIRS in customer research


Functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) has recently emerged as an exciting new way of imaging brain activity. The method monitors changes in blood hemoglobin levels in the cortex by shining light into the skull to identify brain activity. It is spatially less sensitive than fMRI, but can produce comparable results and, like EEG, is very portable – allowing the measurement of individual behaviour in real life settings. It is very sensitive and can detect and distinguish neural activity related to decision making and, combined with other physiological measures (like EDA and heart rate), offers great promise in allowing us to understand how customers and employees respond to actual events.

We believe in finding better ways to understand human behaviour rather than just asking people to fill in surveys. This understanding helps businesses to enhance the customer and employee experiences that contribute to commercial success.

To find out more about the science of experience and how CX Lab’s biometric research tools and methodology can help you to understand and so improve your customer and employee experience, please get in touch.