Category Archives: human brain, explained

Multi-synaptic experiences. The next frontier.

Just a quick heads up, Scientific American carries a crisp explanation of how memories are formed. This part explains the phenomenon well.

As a person processes an event, two neurons pass information through a small space called a synapse. This chemical conversation triggers an intricate cascade, inviting nearby neurons to fire and ultimately creating a network of connections with varying strengths. Afterward, this pattern of connections, or memory, remains within the network of neurons that processed the event.

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(Source: Science Ahead)

It’s more complicated than that sounds.

Your brain consists of about 100 billion neurons. There are anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses for each neuron, leading to more than trillion connections, each connection responsible for one memory or the other.

And not stopping there, every time you recall a memory or have a new thought, you are creating a new connection in your brain.

And then, brands and marketers today are still talking about USPs. It’s time to sidestep this convention and understand how we can look at deeper connections that strengthen the relationships with not just products and brands, but play a huge role in enabling newer experiences.

Metaphorically speaking…

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(Source: Hugh McLeod, gaping void)

The Boston Globe recently carried an article about metaphors and the mind. While metaphors have always been popularized by poets or politicians, now the psychologists are nudging for some space. They have a different motive though. Turns out, they have begun to see basic metaphors that we use not just as phrase, but as keys to structure of thought.

Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how “warm” or “cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how “weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful.

What they have found is that, in fact, we do. Metaphors aren’t just how we talk and write, they’re how we think.

No wonder, when people primed with a hot cup of coffee and asked to rate the personality of a person described to them, they consistently described the subject as a warmer person in personality. This shows that human thought itself is metaphor driven. Affection is warmth; important is big; difficulties are burdens; similarity is closeness; categories are containers.

Ultimately, metaphors are used so that we can make sense to one another. While metaphors are literary creations, how do they fundamentally function? From all the work we’ve done on trying to understand the human brain, every new thing we learn points back to the way our memory system is organized.

Memory cannot be created from scratch.

Our entire memory is stored in schema. Every new stimulus must activate relevant existing schemas in the mind before any new information is presented. Only then are newer memories formed and collected. The more number of relevant schemas, the stronger the connection and the bond with that new stimulus. That’s where metaphors come in. Our prior knowledge affects how we perceive new information, and our expectations regarding a particular experience influence how we interpret it.

For example, someone gets called a couch potato, your friend starts thinking fondly about their old flame, or you’ve probably just had a rough day. All of these metaphors are activating pre-existing schema within your memory system to help you better understand the context. Good metaphors help us see the world anew, in fresh and interesting ways. These metaphors wouldn’t make sense in themselves if it were not for the intricate memory storage system of the human brain.

This understanding of the existing memory system has huge implications in the field of marketing. We have talked earlier about how brands must try to live in the long-term memory rather than just visit the short-term memory.

Fair & Lovely is a great example of a brand that has blended itself into the memory schemata of the fairness category. There is an existing memory pattern that surrounds the concept of fairness in this Indian society. Fair skinned brides are preferred; fair denotes status value; fair is aspirational. Ultimately, fair skin is what gets you ahead in life. Fair & Lovely is leading category thinking by attaching itself to this entire “transformation of women” schemata by discussing issues that are more than skin deep (the ambition of aspiration that one can achieve). Nevertheless, all this new information is grounded in their in-depth understanding of the current memory patterns in the category. All of this reflects in everything Fair & Lovely does, right from product to packaging to communication. And it’s going strong.

Successful brands are those which identify and fit themselves onto the existing memory schemata of the category. By driving newer perceptions that are grounded to these existing schemata, these brands are in a great position to garner more emotional loyalty.

This is when consumers will feel that your brand somehow seems to know exactly what they want, and they are only more than happy getting it from you.

Where’s the cocktail party at?

A recent study conducted by Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence dispels several popular notions about video media use. Results of its Video Consumer Mapping study was just released a few days ago. Incidentally, this is also the largest and most extensive observational study of media usage ever conducted.

What they’ve found is interesting. Apparently, younger baby boomers (age 45-54) average the most daily screen time (just over 9½ hours). The rest of us average 8½ hours. What’s really thought-provoking is that despite proliferation of multiple screens into the household, most of this screen time is dedicated to the television (5 hours and 9 mins).

The TV is still the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room.

But where television bites the dust for advertisers is that when spots run on the TV, the “concurrent media exposure indices” go through the roof.

Which means that when ads appear for dish soap, consumers change their environment — go to the bathroom or kitchen, pick up a magazine, call someone on the phone, or toy with a laptop computer, things other than watch the 30-second spot on TV. “During commercial breaks,” the report says, “people were observed shifting their primary attention.” (via ThoughtGadgets, MediAssociates)

We’ve believed this for some time now; the human brain is not wired to pay attention to two similar activities at once. It was time until the cocktail party effect started working on the people. This cocktail party effect can be described as the ability to focus on a single speaker, even if there are many speaking people around. We listen to a single conversation at a cocktail party. All of the other noise is filtered out and largely ignored.

While this cocktail party effect does spell doom for simultaneous media consumption, another aspect that’s working against attention is the idea of communicating to people in their cold state. For example, when I tune in to SETMax to watch the IPL, I want to watch cricket. Why are you intruding and selling me a car on my cricket time? And if you show me Coke, that doesn’t mean I am going to run out of home and buy one right away. By the time, I go to the market tomorrow, I would have most likely forgotten about you.

Context is crucial.

Take for example, Joshua Bell. One of the world’s greatest violinists. His instrument of choice is a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. If he played it for spare change, incognito, outside a bustling Metro stop in Washington, would anyone notice?

Just three days before this Metro performance, Joshua Bell played at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where good seats went for $100. In the forty five minutes that he played at the D.C. Metro Station, twenty seven people gave money, most of them on the run for a total of $32 and change.

If a great musician plays great music and no one hears him, was he any good?

Activity, not aligned with the context, fails to create impact.

Even more so, in light of these research findings, it is time to explore unconventional ways to reach out and connect with your consumer. What are you doing about it?

Designing clockworked motions

From Gettyimages

That wall clock, right in the middle of the office. Is it not a sign of the laziness? It tells the employees when the lunch and tea breaks happen. It gives them licence to take a little time off. It becomes a reason you leave your seat.

Moreover, in today’s companies where fewer office spaces are being flooded by natural sunlight, artificial light keeps burning through the day with the same intensity, breaking down the concept of time. But, understanding how the human brain functions, and evaluating the role of the wall clock within that perspective and gives this “symbol of laziness” an interesting twist.

Leveraging knowledge from the world of neurology in understanding this concept leads us to the bio clock. This bio clock situated within the brain of each person is what controls the body operation that ebbs and flows in a circadian rythm. This clock is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) part of the brain and controls all other different circadian aspects of your body, including the rest/active cycle – sleeping, working, lunch, and others.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the SCN is very sensitive to natural light. It uses this natural light to set itself, and is connected directly to the optic nerves in the eye. That’s how the SCN gets light data to tell the time of day and the seasons.

For example, let’s consider the sleep/wake cycle. The SCN gets light data from the eye sensors, learns the length of day, and passes the information to the pineal gland, which secretes melatonin. Lack of sunlight triggers the pineal gland to produce more melatonin. The hormone acts on the hypothalamus and other brain structures to lull us into longer slumber to match a longer night. That’s why we tend to sleep longer in the winter: less light, more melatonin, more sleep.

In windowless offices, the same intensity of light shines all day. In the absence of a proper measurement of time past in the day, the SCN is confused, and it has no way to tell the brain when to feel hungry, when to feel tired and when to take rest. Of course, over a longer period of time, this affects health and productivity of the employee.

This is where that wall clock comes in. It is designed to work as a quasi circadian clock, which non-consciously tells our brain that we’ve been out for too long, it’s time to take a break, or that it is lunch time. By just silently being there, the clock reduces the impacts of the travails of daily office life and improves efficiency.

Who’d have thought?

The next time you get into a 3PM slump, be wary. Robert Goulet might just be lurking somewhere.