I recently highlighted a new book about the brain: The Master and His Emissary by British neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. Having read dozens of books about the brain over the years, I’m comfortable saying in my claim that this is one of the most important books ever written about the brain for general audiences.
But now comes another book about the brain: How We Decide, by science writer Jonah Lehrer whose writing is highly accessible. We’re on the cusp of major changes in how we view the human brain and mind. This book does as better job than any I know about in introducing some of these changes to lay readers.
The revealing lights of contemporary brain science have shown that our traditional views of what goes on between our ears is grossly out of whack with reality. New insights into the workings of the mind will influence every major field in which human behavior is a telling factor. From my perspective as a marketer, I foresee huge changes in how we shape our messages.
For instance, marketers need to learn more about how to get the attention of the right hemisphere of the brain. That is where most customer decisions originate and are concluded.
But how do you talk to the right brain? The left side of the brain is the language side. The right brain has only primitive language abilities. A message that tells customers about the superior virtues of a product generally gets a yawn from the right brain. The right brain is deaf and blind to rational entreaties.
A message has to produce an emotional response to get the right brain’s attention. And because the right brain serves as a gateway to the left brain, no emotional response to a message by the right brain likely means no rational attention by the left brain.
The idea of so-called neuromarketing is getting a lot of attention these days. The term generally refers to consumer research using brain scanning tools. Researchers watch a consumer’s brain while she reacts to a word, image or other marketing-related stimulus. However, not many marketing firms can afford a $3 million fMRI scanner. So, the next best thing – no, the far better thing is for people involved in creating and approving marketing messages to learn something about how brains and minds work. In fact, save time and don’t pay any attention to reports of what great things await us in marketing as fMRI scanning technology gets better. As Jonah Lehrer wrote recently in his blog The Frontal Cortex
Functional MRI has been used to study all sorts of sexy psychological properties. You've probably seen the headlines: "Scientists Discover Love in the Brain!" and "This Is Your Brain on God!" Such claims are often accompanied by a pretty silhouette of a skull, highlighted with splotches of primary color. It's like staring at a portrait of the soul. It's also false. In reality, huge swaths of the cortex are involved in every aspect of cognition. The mind is a knot of interconnections, so interpreting the scan depends on leaving lots of stuff out, sifting through noise for the signal. We make sense of the data by deleting what we don't understand.
What's disappointing here isn't just that these early fMRI studies are overhyped or miss important facts. It's that this mistake is all too familiar. Time and time again, an experimental gadget gets introduced -- it doesn't matter if it's a supercollider or a gene chip or an fMRI machine -- and we're told it will allow us to glimpse the underlying logic of everything. But the tool always disappoints, doesn't it? We soon realize that those pretty pictures are incomplete and that we can't reduce our complex subject to a few colorful spots. So here's a pitch: Scientists should learn to expect this cycle -- to anticipate that the universe is always more networked and complicated than reductionist approaches can reveal.
So, buy a copy of How We Decide to take to the beach or off into the mountains with you on your summer vacation. But if you choose not to learn more about how the customer’s brain and mind work, maybe it’s time to consider changing your career. The only problem is I have a hard time thinking of a career that will not be changed by new insights into the workings of the intelligent mass of tissue between our ears.