Are Our Brains being Rewired?

I have to start out by thanking Nico Brooks and Jess Gao. Without intending to, they both provided me more than enough fodder for a rather lengthy column in Seach Engine Land on Friday.

Nico is the Chief Search Strategist at Atlas. Jess is our intern at Enquiro, who’s currently working towards her doctorate, specializing in cognitive psychology. Through different paths, they both gave me some major brain melting ideas to chew over. I’m still digesting, but you can catch the thought process in action on my column.

But consider this. What if our brains are being rewired by the internet? Some of our behaviors are innate. They’re our OEM operating software, put there by the manufacturer. Flight or fight. The need to procreate. The appreciation of beauty. This stuff is hardwired.

But some of our behaviors are learned. We’ve developed them as we go. The things sit in our temporary memory caches, and we can adjust them if they’re no longer working. The thing that started all this was how we learn to navigate a physical environment. First we look for landmarks, then we memorize routes, then we put the two together to create a cognitive map. Nico’s suspicion (and Nico, I hope I’m capturing the essence of the idea accurately) is that our need to identify landmarks and even our ability to memorize routes is probably innate. It’s just how we are programmed to get around. But cognitive mapping, at least in the essentially rectangular grid pattern that is common in the Cartesian coordinate model, is a learned behavior. Rectangles have no place in the n dimensional space of online, so as we spend more time navigating online, will we change our mapping process?

Then, with Jess, we had a great chat about how we perceive things, especially ads. There’s a great introduction to selective perception that I would urge you to check out. In recent studies we’ve done at Enquiro, one of the interesting findings has been that the more intrusive the ad, the less it seems to work. It registers high in the first stage of perception, stimulation, and manages to succeed in the second, registration, but fails in the last two stages, organization and interpretation.

Other conversations I had this week, that didn’t make it into either of the columns. On Thursday I was in New York for Google’s B to B Summit and had a chance to chat with Mark Martel, who supports the B to B Tech Sales Vertical at Google. Mark has a healthy intellectual curiosity and I always enjoy chatting with him. We discussed schemas and how important they are in the process of perception. Then, on Friday, I was in Toronto chatting with the Yahoo Canada gang, including Maor Daniels and Adina Zointz (what a great name, literally covering everything from A to Z!) and we talked about how quickly we’re learning to judge the authenticity of content online. It’s as if our bullshit filters are more finely tuned than ever.

I’m definitely on a riff here, but there’s a lot of threads coming together. Even in someone of my ever upwards creeping years (I’m 46) I suspect my synapses are under construction. Old routes are being torn out and new ones are being built. And with my daughters, many of the paths are being built differently right from the start. The routes that were so important to me in grade school, times tables, rote memorization, etc, are becoming overgrown with weeds through lack of use. But new routes I never even thought of, like how to do homework, carry on an online chat and watch the TV with one eye, are being upgraded into major turnpikes. Multitasking is a major operational imperative now, and selective perception is kicking into overdrive.

Anyway, to further dive into some of the things on my mind, here’s some of the columns where I’m beginning to open up some of these ideas to the fresh, online air:

Infomediating a Broken Marketplace – a look at Hagel and Singers Infomediary model from their book Net Worth. Is Google aiming to be the ultimate match maker in the marketplace?

4000 Ads a Day, and Counting – Part One of the Infomediary Doubleheader, looking at the disconnect between customers who just want the facts, and advertisers that just want to control our buying habits

Some Big Ideas for a Friday – Some musings about how we perceive advertising, based on recent studies we conducted, and how we might be remapping the perception process

How We Navigate Our Online Landscape – The original exploration of landmark, route and survey knowledge and how it may map (or not) to how we navigate our online space

And please, do me a favor. This is all stuff I want to explore further in the book. If you think I’m full of bullshit, call me on it. Share your thoughts. Post a comment. Start a dialogue. I know it’s a pain in the ass posting comments on blogs because of spam, but PLEEASSSE take a few moments to do so. Or drop me an email.

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