Brain Wiring and Digital Marketing Trends

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Synopsis

Why is it that so many of us derive pleasure from the sight of a shiny new car or a marble countertop? The neural links between symbols and pleasure in our brains fire in both directions and are much tighter than we ever imagined.

For as long as we humans have crafted trinkets and raised buildings, we've revered certain materials above all others: Gold and silver, emeralds and rubies, quartz and marble. The ancient Egyptians believed that the skin of the gods was made of gold, and their bones of silver. In classical Greek culture, while some sculptures were made of bronze, the finest statues and columns were carved from pure marble. 

After so many years of seeing those sculptures ensconced in museum exhibits, it's easy to forget that the real reason these materials are precious is that we choose to keep revering them - out of ancient tradition, or sometimes just out of habit. 

Why is it, though, that so many of us derive pleasure from the sight of a shiny new car or a marble countertop? The materials themselves don't clothe or feed us; they don't show us affection or keep us cool on a hot summer day. The simple answer is that we've learned, over our lifetimes, to think of these materials as symbols of luxury. But as the latest brain studies are discovering, our minds' linkages between symbols and pleasure may be much tighter than we ever imagined.

Take, for example, a recent study that examined monkeys' brains after they learned to associate a certain image with a reward. As the journal Neuron reports, a team led by the University of Leuven's Wim Vanduffel and Harvard Medical School's John Arsenault cooked up a variation on the classic “Pavlov's dogs” experiment. Remember that one from high school? Give a dog a treat every time you ring a bell, and the dog will learn to start drooling at the sound of the bell. In this new experiment, on the other hand, the researchers gave a group of monkeys a drink of juice as the little guys watched some images being projected on a screen. Then the researchers put the monkeys into an fMRI scanner and gave them the same juicy treat. 

The team discovered something surprising: Every time a monkey gulped down a squirt of juice, its visual cortex lit up with activity, even in the absence of any image on the screen. It was as if the drink of juice was enough to trigger the memory of the image in the monkey's “mind's eye.” Of course, brain scans can't tell us for certain what a monkey was thinking - but as the researchers point out, these reward-triggered reactions didn't spread throughout the monkeys' whole visual system, “but were instead confined to the specific brain regions responsible for processing the exact stimulus used earlier during conditioning.”

What's more, repeating the reward in the absence of an image actually strengthened the visual areas' activation each time - a telling indication that neural associations often form a two-way street. Once two separate groups of neurons learn to fire in synchrony, activation of one set easily leads to activation of the other - no matter where in the brain each group happens to be located. This is how the smell of a favorite meal can conjure up vivid mental images of the dining room in the house where you grew up. 

Many digital marketing trends take advantage of this “share of synapse” idea. Online marketers scour the web for memes and images you’re likely to enjoy, then set to work linking those happy memories with products and services they provide. The last few years of digital advertising trends have provided some success stories - like the Old Spice guy and the Most Interesting Man in the World - as well as some embarrassing failures, like McDonalds’ foot-in-mouth “I’d hit it” hamburger campaign.

Though not all of us are enchanted by gold and marble - or by deodorant and hamburgers, for that matter - we've all got our own versions of those monkeys' rewarding images; whether they're memories of people we love, knickknacks from our childhood, or digital memes we like to pass on. Maybe it's not too surprising that a photo album can resurrect old feelings - but as this study demonstrates, the feelings themselves can resurrect old (mental) photos. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that when we’re in a silly mood, we find ourselves looking for silly images to share with others. Same goes for aspirational images, or just inspirational ones. This impulse to share lies at the very root of marketing, and it’s an impulse as old as the human race.

Tags: brain, business, marketing, pleasure, psychology

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