Our Brain on Reviews

There’s an interesting new study that was just published about how our brain mathematically handles online reviews that I wanted to talk about today. But before I get to that, I wanted to talk about foraging a bit.

The story of how science discovered our foraging behaviors serves as a mini lesson in how humans tick. The economists of the 1940’s and 50’s discovered the world of micro-economics, based on the foundation that humans were perfectly rational – we were homo economicus. When making personal economic choices in a world of limited resources, we maximized utility. The economists of the time assumed this was a uniquely human property, bequeathed on us by virtue of the reasoning power of our superior brains.

In the 60’s, behavior ecologists knocked our egos down a peg or two. It wasn’t just humans that could do this. Foxes could do it. Starlings could do it. Pretty much any species had the same ability to seemingly make optimal choices when faced with scarcity. It was how animals kept from starving to death. This was the birth of foraging theory. This wasn’t some homo-sapien-exclusive behavior that was directed from the heights of rationality downwards. It was an evolved behavior that was built from the ground up. It’s just that humans had learned how to apply it to our abstract notion of economic utility.

Three decades later, two researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center found another twist. Not only had our ability to forage been evolved all the way through our extensive family tree, but we seemed to borrow this strategy and apply it to entirely new situations. Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card found that when humans navigate content in online environments, the exact same patterns could be found. We foraged for information. Those same calculations determined whether we would stay in an information “patch” or move on to more promising territory.

This seemed to indicate three surprising discoveries about our behavior:

  • Much of what we think is rational behavior is actually driven by instincts that have evolved over millions of years
  • We borrow strategies from one context and apply them in another. We use the same basic instincts to find the FAQ section of a website that we used to find sustenance on the savannah.
  • Our brains seem to use Bayesian logic to continuously calculate and update a model of the world. We rely on this model to survive in our environment, whatever and wherever that environment might be.

So that brings us to the study I mentioned at the beginning of this column. If we take the above into consideration, it should come as no surprise that our brain uses similar evolutionary strategies to process things like online reviews. But the way it does it is fascinating.

The amazing thing about the brain is how it seamlessly integrates and subconsciously synthesizes information and activity from different regions. For example, in foraging, the brain integrates information from the regions responsible for wayfinding – knowing our place in the world – with signals from the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – an area responsible for reward monitoring and executive control. Essentially, the brain is constantly updating an algorithm about whether the effort required to travel to a new “patch” will be balanced by the reward we’ll find when we get there. You don’t consciously marshal the cognitive resources required to do this. The brain does it automatically. What’s more – the brain uses many of the same resources and algorithm whether we’re considering going to McDonald’s for a large order of fries or deciding what online destination would be the best bet for researching our upcoming trip to Portugal.

In evaluating online reviews, we have a different challenge: how reliable are the reviews? The context may be new – our ancestors didn’t have TripAdvisor or AirBNB ratings for choosing the right cave to sleep in tonight – but the problem isn’t. What criteria should we use when we decide to integrate social information into our decision making process? If Thorlak the bear hunter tells me there’s a great cave a half-day’s march to the south, should I trust him? Experience has taught us a few handy rules of thumb when evaluating sources of social information: reliability of the source and the consensus of crowds. Has Thorlak ever lied to us before? Do others in the tribe agree with him? These are hardwired social heuristics. We apply them instantly and instinctively to new sources of information that come from our social network. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. So it should come as no surprise that we borrow these strategies when dealing with online reviews.

In a neuro-scanning study from the University College of London, researchers found that reliability plays a significant role in how our brains treat social information. Once again, a well-evolved capability of the brain is recruited to help us in a new situation. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that keeps track of our social connections. This “social monitoring” ability of the brain worked in concert with ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that processes value estimates.

The researchers found that this part of our brain works like a Bayesian computer when considering incoming information. First we establish a “prior” that represents a model of what we believe to be true. Then we subject this prior to possible statistical updating based on new information – in this case, online reviews. If our confidence is high in this “prior” and the incoming information is weak, we tend to stick with our initial belief. But if our confidence is low and the incoming information is strong – i.e. a lot of positive reviews – then the brain overrides the prior and establishes a new belief, based primarily on the new information.

While this seems like common sense, the mechanisms at play are interesting. The brain effortlessly pattern matches new types of information and recruits the region that is most likely to have evolved to successfully interpret that information. In this case, the brain had decided that online reviews are most like information that comes from social sources. It combines the interpretation of this data with an algorithmic function that assigns value to the new information and calculates a new model – a new understanding of what we believe to be true. And it does all this “under the hood” – sitting just below the level of conscious thought.

Flow and the Machine

“In the future, either you’re going to be telling a machine what to do, or the machine is going to be telling you.”

Christopher Penn – VP of Marketing Technology, Shift Communications.

I often talk about the fallibility of the human brain – those irrational, cognitive biases that can cause us to miss the reality that’s right in front of our face. But there’s another side to the human brain – the intuitive, almost mystical machinations that happen when we’re on a cognitive roll, balancing gloriously on the edge between consciousness and subconciousness. Malcolm Gladwell took a glancing shot at this in his mega-bestseller: Blink. But I would recommend going right to the master of “Flow” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, if you’re interested – me-hi Chick-sent-me-hi). The Hungarian psychologist coined the term “flow” – referring to a highly engaged mental state where we’re completely absorbed with the work at hand. Csikszentmihalyi calls it the “psychology of optimal experience.”

It turns out there’s a pretty complicated neuroscience behind flow. In a blog post from gamer Adam Sinicki, he describes a state where the brain finds an ideal balance between instinctive behavior and total focus on one task. The state is called Transient Hypofrontality. It can sometimes be brought on by physical exercise. It’s why some people can think better while walking, or even jogging. The brain juggles resources required and this can force a stepping down of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that causes us to question ourselves. This part of the brain is required in unfamiliar circumstances but in a situation where we’ve thoroughly rehearsed the actions required it’s actually better if it takes a break. This allows other – more intuitive – parts of the brain to come to the fore. And that may be the secret of “Flow.” It may also be the one thing that machines can’t replicate – yet.

The Rational Machine

If we were to compare the computer to a part of the brain, it would probably be the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). When we talk about cognitive computing, what we’re really talking about is building a machine that can mimic – or exceed – the capabilities of the PFC. This is the home of our “executive function” – complex decision making, planning, rationalization and our own sense of self. It’s probably not a coincidence that the part of our brain we rely on to reason through complex challenges like designing artificial intelligence would build a machine in it’s own image. And in this instance, we’re damned close to surpassing ourselves. The PFC is an impressive chunk of neurobiology in its flexibility and power, but speedy it’s not. In fact, we’ve found that if we happen to make a mistake, the brain slows almost to a stand still. It shakes our confidence and kills any “flow” that might be happening in it’s tracks. This is what happens to athletes when they choke. With artificial intelligence, we are probably on the cusp of creating machines that can do most of what the PFC can do, only faster, more reliably and with the ability to process much more information.

But there’s a lot more to the brain than just the PFC. And it’s this ethereal intersection between ration and intuition where the essence of being human might be hiding.

The Future of Flow

What if we could harness “flow” at will? If we work in partnership with a machine that can crunch data in real time and present us with the inputs required to continue our flow-fueled exploration without the fear of making a mistake? It’s not so much a machine telling us what to do – or the reverse – as it is a partnership between human intuition and machine based rationalization. It’s analogous to driving a modern car, where the intelligent safety and navigation features backstop our ability to drive.

Of course, it may just be a matter of time before machines best us in this area as well. Perhaps machines already have mastered flow because they don’t have to worry about the consequences of making a mistake. But it seems to me that if humans have a future, it’s not going to be in our ability to crunch data and rationalize. We’ll have to find something a little more magical to stake our claim with.



Why Our Brains are Blocking Ads

On Mediapost alone in the last three months, there have been 172 articles written that have included the words “ad blockers” or “ad blocking.” That’s not really surprising, given that Mediapost covers the advertising biz and ad blocking is killing that particular biz, to the tune of an estimated loss of $41 billion in 2016. eMarketer estimates 70 million Americans, or 1 out of every 4 people online, uses ad blockers.

Paul Verna, an eMarketer Senior Analyst said “Ad blocking is a detriment to the entire advertising ecosystem, affecting mostly publishers, but also marketers, agencies and others whose businesses depend on ad revenue.” The UK’s culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, went even further, saying that ad blocking is a “modern-day protection racket.”

Here’s the problem with all this finger pointing. If you’re looking for a culprit to blame, don’t look at the technology or the companies deploying that technology. New technologies don’t cause us to change our behaviors – they enable behaviors that weren’t an option before. To get to the bottom of the growth of ad blocking, we have to go to the common denominator – the people those ads are aimed at. More specifically, we have to look at what’s happening in the brains of those people.

In the past, the majority of our interaction with advertising was done while our brain was idling, with no specific task in mind. I refer to this as bottom up environmental scanning. Essentially, we’re looking for something to capture our attention: a TV show, a book, a magazine article, a newspaper column. We were open to being engaged by stimuli from our environment (in other words, being activated from the “bottom up”).

In this mode, the brain is in a very accepting state. We match signals from our environment with concepts and beliefs we hold in our mind. We’re relatively open to input and if the mental association is a positive or intriguing one – we’re willing to spend some time to engage.

We also have to consider the effect of priming in this state. Priming sets a subconscious framework for the brain that then affects any subsequent mental processing. The traditional prime that was in place when we were exposed to advertising was a fairly benign one: we were looking to be entertained or informed, often the advertising content was delivered wrapped in a content package that we had an affinity for (our favorite show, a preferred newspaper, etc), and advertising was delivered in discrete chunks that our brain had been trained to identify and process accordingly.

All this means that in traditional exposures to ads, our brain was probably in the most accepting state possible. We were looking for something interesting, we were primed to be in a positive frame of mind and our brains could easily handle the contextual switches required to consider an ad and it’s message.

We also have to remember that we had a relatively static ad consumption environment that usually matched our expectations of how ads would be delivered. We expected commercial breaks in TV shows. We didn’t expect ads in the middle of a movie or book, two formats that required extended focusing of attention and didn’t lend themselves to mental contextual task switches. Each task switch brings with it a refocusing of attention and a brief burst of heightened awareness as our brains are forced to reassess its environment. These are fine in some environments – not in others.

Now, let’s look at the difference in cognitive contexts that accompany the deliver of most digital ads. First of all, when we’re online on our desktop or engaged with a mobile device, it’s generally in what I’ll call a “top down foraging” mode. We’re looking for something specific and we have intent in mind. This means there’s already a task lodged in our working memory (hence “top down”) and our attentional spotlight is on and focused on that task. This creates a very different environment for ad consumption.

When we’re in foraging mode, we suddenly are driven by an instinct that is as old as the human race (actually, much older than that): Optimal Foraging Theory. In this mode, we are constantly filtering the stimuli of our environment to see what is relevant to our intent. It’s this filtering that causes attentional blindness to non-relevant factors – whether they be advertising banners or people dressed up like gorillas. This filtering happens on a subconscious basis and the brain uses a primal engine to drive it – the promise of reward or the frustration of failure. When it comes to foraging – for food or for information – frustration is a feature, not a bug.

Our brains have a two loop learning process. It starts with a prediction – what psychologists and economists call “expected utility.” We mentally place bets on possible outcomes and go with the one that promises the best reward. If we’re right, the reward system of the brain gives us a shot of dopamine. Things are good. But if we bet wrong, a different part of the brain kicks in: the right anterior insula, the adjacent right ventral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Those are the centers of the brain that regulate pain. Nature is not subtle about these things – especially when the survival of the species depends on it. If we find what we’re looking for, we get a natural high. If we don’t, it’s actually causes us pain – but not in a physical way. We know it as frustration. Its purpose is to encourage us to not make the same mistake twice

The reason we’re blocking ads is that in the context those ads are being delivered, irrelevant ads are – quite literally – painful. Even relevant ads have a very high threshold to get over. Ad blocking has little to do with technology or “protection rackets” or predatory business practices. It has to do with the hardwiring of our brains. So if the media or the ad industry want to blame something or someone, let’s start there.

What Would a “Time Well Spent” World Look Like?

I’m worried about us. And it’s not just because we seem bent on death by ultra-conservative parochialism and xenophobia. I’m worried because I believe we’re spending all our time doing the wrong things. We’re fiddling while Rome burns.

Technology is our new drug of choice and we’re hooked. We’re fascinated by the trivial. We’re dumping huge gobs of time down the drain playing virtual games, updating social statuses, clicking on clickbait and watching videos of epic wardrobe malfunctions. Humans should be better than this.

It’s okay to spend some time doing nothing. The brain needs some downtime. But something, somewhere has gone seriously wrong. We are now spending the majority of our lives doing useless things. TV used to be the biggest time suck, but in 2015, for the first time ever, the boob tube was overtaken by time spent with mobile apps. According to a survey conducted by Flurry, in the second quarter of 2015 we spent about 2.8 hours per day watching TV. And we spent 3.3 hours on mobile apps. That’s a grand total of 6.1 hours per day or one third of the time we spend awake. Yes, both things can happen at the same time, so there is undoubtedly overlap, but still- that’s a scary-assed statistic!

And it’s getting worse. In a previous Flurry poll conducted in 2013, we spent a total of 298 hours between TV and mobile apps versus 366 hours in 2015. That’s a 22.8% increase in just two years. We’re spending way more time doing nothing. And those totals don’t even include things like time spent in front of a gaming console. For kids, tack on an average of another 10 hours per week and you can double that for hard-core male gamers. Our addiction to gaming has even led to death in extreme cases.

Even in the wildest stretches of imagination, this can’t qualify as “time well spent.”

We’re treading on very dangerous and very thin ice here. And, we no longer have history to learn from. It’s the first time we’ve ever encountered this. Technology is now only one small degree of separation from plugging directly into the pleasure center of our brains. And science has proven that a good shot of self-administered dopamine can supersede everything –water, food, sex. True, these experiments were administered on rats – primarily because it’s been unethical to go too far on replicating the experiments with humans – but are you willing to risk the entire future of mankind on the bet that we’re really that much smarter than rats?

My fear is that technology is becoming a slightly more sophisticated lever we push to get that dopamine rush. And developers know exactly what they’re doing. They are making that lever as addictive as possible. They are pushing us towards the brink of death by technological lobotomization. They’re lulling us into a false sense of security by offering us the distraction of viral videos, infinitely scrolling social notification feeds and mobile game apps. It’s the intellectual equivalent of fast food – quite literally “brain candy.

Here the hypocrisy of for-profit interest becomes evident. The corporate response typically rests on individual freedom of choice and the consumer’s ability to exercise will power. “We are just giving them what they’re asking for,” touts the stereotypical PR flack. But if you have an entire industry with reams of developers and researchers all aiming to hook you on their addictive product and your only defense is the same faulty neurological defense system that has already fallen victim to fast food, porn, big tobacco, the alcohol industry and the $350 billion illegal drug trade, where would you be placing your bets?

Technology should be our greatest achievement. It should make us better, not turn us into a bunch of lazy screen-addicted louts. And it certainly could be this way. What would it mean if technology helped us spend our time well? This is the hope behind the Time Well Spent Manifesto. Ethan Harris, a design ethicist and product philosopher at Google is one of the co-directors. Here is an excerpt from the manifesto:

We believe in a new kind of design, that lets us connect without getting sucked in. And disconnect, without missing something important.

And we believe in a new kind economy that’s built to help us spend time well, where products compete to help us live by our values.

I believe in the Manifesto. I believe we’re being willingly led down a scary and potentially ruinous path. Worst of all, I believe there is nothing we can – or will – do about it. Problems like this are seldom solved by foresight and good intentions. Things only change after we drive off the cliff.

The problem is that most of us never see it coming. And we never see it coming because we’re too busy watching a video of masturbating monkeys on Youtube.

We’re Informed. But Are We Thoughtful?

I’m a bit of a jerk when I write. I lock myself behind closed doors in my home office. In the summer, I retreat to the most remote reaches of the back yard. The reason? I don’t want to be interrupted with human contact. If I am interrupted, I stare daggers through the interrupter and answer in short, clipped sentences. The house has to be silent. If conditions are less than ideal, my irritation is palpable. My family knows this. The warning signal is “Dad is writing.” This can be roughly translated as “Dad is currently an asshole.” The more I try to be thoughtful, the bigger the ass I am.

I suspect Henry David Thoreau was the same.  He went even further than my own backyard exile. He camped out alone for two years in Ralph Waldo Emersen’s cabin on Walden Pond. He said things like,

“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

But Thoreau but was also a pretty thoughtful guy, who advised us that,

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

But, I ask, how can we be thoughtful when we are constantly distracted by information? Our mental lives are full of single footsteps. Even if we intend to cover the same path more than once, there are a thousand beeps, alerts, messages, prompts, pokes and flags that are beckoning us to start down a new path, in a different direction. We probably cover more ground, but I suspect we barely disturb the fallen leaves on the paths we take.

I happen to do all my reading on a tablet. I do this for three reasons; first, I always have my entire library with me and I usually have four books on the go at the same time (currently 1491, Reclaiming Conversation, Flash Boys and 50 Places to Bike Before You Die) – secondly, I like to read before I go to sleep and I don’t need to keep a light on that keeps my wife awake – and thirdly, I like to highlight passages and make notes. But there’s a trade-off I’ve had to make. I don’t read as thoughtfully as I used to. I can’t “escape” with a book anymore. I am often tempted to check email, play a quick game of 2048 or search for something on Google. Maybe the fact that my attention is always divided amongst four books is part of the problem. Or maybe it’s that I’m more attention deficit than I used to be.

There is a big difference between being informed and being thoughtful. And our connected world definitely puts the bias on the importance of information. Being connected is all about being informed. But being thoughtful requires us to remove distraction. It’s the deep paths that Thoreau was referring too. And it requires a very different mindset. Our brains are a single-purpose engine. We can either be informed or be thoughtful. We can’t be both at the same time.


At the University of California, San Francisco, Mattiass Karlsson and Loren Frank found that rats need two very different types of cognitive activity when mastering a maze. First, when they explore a maze, certain parts of their brain are active as they’re being “informed” about their new environment. But they don’t master the maze unless they’re allowed downtime to consolidate the information into new persistent memories. Different parts of the brain are engaged, including the hippocampus. They need time to be thoughtful and create a “deep path.”

In this instance, we’re not all that different than rats. In his research, MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland found that effective teams tend to cycle through two very different phases: First, they explore, gathering new information. Then, just like the thoughtful rats, they engage as a group, taking that information, digesting it and synthesizing it for future execution. Pentland found that while both are necessary, they don’t exist at the same time,

“Exploration and engagement, while both good, don’t easily coexist, because they require that the energy of team members be put to two different uses. Energy is a finite resource.”

Ironically, research is increasingly showing that are previous definitions of cognitive activity may have been off-the mark. We always assumed that “mind-wandering” or “day-dreaming” was a non-productive activity. But we’re finding out that it’s an essential part of being thoughtful. We’re actually not “wandering.” It’s just the brain’s way of synthesizing and consolidating information. We’re wearing deeper paths in the by-ways of our mind. But a constant flow of new information, delivered through digital channels, keeps us from synthesizing the information we already have. Our brain is too busy being informed to be able to make the switch to thoughtfulness. We don’t have enough cognitive energy to do both.

What price might we pay for being “informed” at the expense of being “thoughtful?” It appears that it might be significant. Technology distraction in the classroom could lower grades by close to 20 percent. And you don’t even have to be the one using the device. Just having an open screen in the vicinity might distract you enough to drop your report card from a “B” to a “C.”

Having read this, you now have two choices. You could click off to the next bit of information. Or, you could stare into space for a few minutes and be lost in your thoughts.

Chose wisely.

Our Brain on Books

Brain-on-BooksHere’s another neuroscanning study out of Emory University showing the power of a story.

Lead researcher Gregory Burns and his team wanted to “understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.” Their findings seem to indicate that stories, in this case a historical fiction novel about Pompeii, caused a number of changes in the participants brain, at least in the short term. Over time, some of these changes decayed, but more research is required to determine how long lasting the changes are.

One would expect reading to alter related parts of the brain and this was true in the Emory study. The left temporal cortex, a section of the brain that handles language reception and interpretation showed signs of heightened connectivity for a period of time after reading the novel. This is almost like the residual effects of exercise on a muscle, which responds favorably to usage.

What was interesting, however, was that the team also saw increased connectivity in the areas of the brain that control representations of sensation for the body. This relates to Antonio Damasio’s “Embodied Semantics” theory where the reading of metaphors, especially those relating specifically to tactile images, activate the same parts of the brain that control the corresponding physical activity. The Emory study (and Damasio’s work) seems to show that if you read a novel that depicts physical activity, such as running through the streets of Pompeii as Vesuvius erupts, your brain is firing the same neurons as it would if you were actually doing it!

There are a number of interesting aspects to consider here, but what struck me is the multi-prong impact a story has on us. Let’s run through them:

Narratives have been shown to be tremendously influential frameworks for us to learn and update our sense of the world, including our own belief networks. Books have been a tremendously effect agent for meme transference and propagation. The structure of a story allows us to grasp concepts quickly, but also reinforces those concepts because it engages our brain in a way that a simple recital of facts could not. We relate to protagonists and see the world through their eyes. All our socially tuned, empathetic abilities kick into action when we read a story, helping to embed new information more fully. Reading a story helps shape our world view.

Reading exercises the language centers of our brain, heightening the neural connectivity and improving the effectiveness. Neurologists call this “shadow activity” – a concept similar to muscle memory.

Reading about physical activity fires the same neurons that we would use to do the actual activity. So, if you read an action thriller, even through you’re lying flat on a sofa, your brain thinks you’re the one racing a motorcycle through the streets of Istanbul and battling your arch nemesis on the rooftops of Rome. While it might not do much to improve muscle tone, it does begin to create neural pathways. It’s the same concept of visualization used by Olympic athletes.

For Future Consideration

As we learn more about the underlying neural activity of story reading, I wonder how we can use this to benefit ourselves? The biggest question I have is if a story in written form has this capacity to impact us at all the aforementioned levels, what would  more sense-engaged media like television or video games do? If reading about a physical activity tricks the brain into firing the corresponding sensory controlling neurons, what would happen if we are simulating that activity on an action controlled gaming system like Microsoft’s X Box? My guess would be that the sensory motor connections would obviously be much more active (because we’re physically active). Unfortunately, research in the area of embodied semantics is still at an early stage, so many of the questions have yet to be answered.

However, if our stories are conveyed through a more engaging sensory experience, with full visuals and sound, do we lose some opportunity for abstract analysis? The parts of our brain we use to read depend on relatively slow processing loops. I believe much of the power of reading lies in the requirements it places on our imagination to fill in the sensory blanks. When we read about a scene in Pompeii we have to create the visuals, the soundtrack and the tactile responses. In all this required rendering, does it more fully engage our sense-making capabilities, giving us more time to interpret and absorb?

The Insula and The Accumbens: Driving Online Behavior

First published December 16, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

One of the more controversial applications of new neurological scanning technologies has been a quest by marketers for the mythical “buy button” in our brains. So far, no magical nook or cranny in our cranium has given marketers the ability to foist whatever crap they want on it, but a couple of parts of the brain have emerged as leading contenders for influencing buying behavior.

The Nucleus Accumbens: The Gas Pedal

The nucleus accumbens has been identified as the reward center of the brain. Although this is an oversimplification, it definitely plays a central role in our reward circuit. Neuroscanning studies show that the nucleus accumbens “lights up” when people think about things that have a reward attached: investments with big returns, buying a sports car or participating in favorite activities. Dopamine is released and the brain benefits from a natural high. Emotions are the drivers of human behavior — they move us to action (the name comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move”). The reward circuit of the brain uses emotions to drive us towards rewards, an evolutionary pathway that improves our odds for passing along our genes.

In consumer behaviors, there are certain purchase decisions that fire the nucleus accumbens. Anything that promises some sort of emotional reward can trigger our reward circuits. We start envisioning what possession would be like: the taste of a meal, the thrill of a new car, the joy of a new home, the indulgence of a new pair of shoes. There is strong positive emotional engagement in these types of purchases.

The Anterior Insula: The Brake

But if our brain was only driven by reward, we would never say no. There needs to be some governing factor on the nucleus accumbens. Again, neuroscanning has identified a small section of the brain called the anterior insula as one of the structures serving this role.

If the nucleus accumbens could be called the reward center, the anterior insula could be called the Angst Center of our brains. The insula is a key part of our emotional braking system.  Through the release of noradrenaline and other neurochemicals, it creates the gnawing anxiety that causes us to slow down and tread carefully. In extreme cases, it can even evoke disgust. If the nucleus accumbens drives impulse purchasing, it’s the anterior insula that triggers buyer’s remorse.

The Balance Between the Two 

Again, at the risk of oversimplification, these two counteracting forces drive much of our consumer behavior. You can look at any purchase as the net result of the balance between them; a balancing of risk and reward, or in the academic jargon, prevention and promotion. High-reward and low-risk purchases will have a significantly different consumer behavior pattern than low-reward and high-risk purchases. Think about the difference between buying life insurance and a new pair of shoes. And because they have significantly different behavior profiles, the online interactions that result from these purchases will look quite different as well. In the next column, I’ll look at the four different purchase profiles (High Risk/High Reward, High Risk/Low Reward, Low Risk/High Reward and Low Risk, Low Reward) and look at how the online maps might look in each scenario.

Wired for Information: A Brain Built to Google

First published August 26, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In my last Search Insider, I took you on a neurological tour that gave us a glimpse into how our brains are built to read. Today, let’s dig deeper into how our brains guide us through an online hunt for information.

Brain Scans and Searching

First, a recap. In Nicholas Carr’s Book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains,I focused on one passage — and one concept — in particular. It’s likely that our brains have built a short cut for reading. The normal translation from a printed word to a concept usually requires multiple mental steps. But because we read so much, and run across some words frequently, it’s probable that our brains have built short cuts to help us recognize those words simply by their shape in mere milliseconds, instantly connecting us with the relevant concept. So, let’s hold that thought for a moment

The Semel Institute at UCLA recently did a neuroscanning study that monitored what parts of the brain lit up during the act of using a search engine online. What the institute found was that when we become comfortable with the act of searching, our brains become more active. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, the language centers and the visual cortex all “light up” during the act of searching, as well as some sub-cortical areas.

It’s the latter of these that indicates the brain may be using “pre-wired” short cuts to directly connect words and concepts. It’s these sub-cortical areas, including the basal ganglia and the hippocampus, where we keep our neural “short cuts.”  They form the auto-pilot of the brain.

Our Brain’s “Waldo” Search Party

Now, let’s look at another study that may give us another piece of the puzzle in helping us understand how our brain orchestrates the act of searching online.

Dr. Robert Desimone at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT found that when we look for something specific, we “picture” it in our mind’s eye. This internal visualization in effect “wakes up” our brain and creates a synchronized alarm circuit: a group of neurons that hold the image so that we can instantly recognize it, even in complex surroundings. Think of a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle. Our brain creates a mental image of Waldo, activating a “search party” of Waldo neurons that synchronize their activities, sharpening our ability to pick out Waldo in the picture. The synchronization of neural activity allows these neurons to zero in on one aspect of the picture, in effect making it stand out from the surrounding detail

Pirolli’s Information Foraging

One last academic reference, and then we’ll bring the pieces together. Peter Pirolli, from Xerox’s PARC, believes we “forage” for information, using the same inherent mechanisms we would use to search for food. So, we hunt for the “scent” of our quarry, but in this case, rather than the smell of food, it’s more likely that we lodge the concept of our objective in our heads. And depending on what that concept is, our brains recruit the relevant neurons to help us pick out the right “scent” quickly from its surroundings.  If our quarry is something visual, like a person or thing, we probably picture it. But if our brain believes we’ll be hunting in a text-heavy environment, we would probably picture the word instead. This is the way the brain primes us for information foraging.

The Googling Brain

This starts to paint a fascinating and complex picture of what our brain might be doing as we use a search engine. First, our brain determines our quarry and starts sending “top down” directives so we can very quickly identify it.  Our visual cortex helps us by literally painting a picture of what we might be looking for. If it’s a word, our brain becomes sensitized to the shape of the word, helping us recognize it instantly without the heavy lifting of lingual interpretation.

Thus primed, we start to scan the search results. This is not reading, this is scanning our environment in mere milliseconds, looking for scent that may lead the way to our prey. If you’ve ever looked at a real-time eye-tracking session with a search engine, this is exactly the behavior you’d be seeing.

When we bring all the pieces together, we realize how instantaneous, primal and intuitive this online foraging is. The slow and rational brain only enters the picture as an afterthought.

Googling is done by instinct. Our eyes and brain are connected by a short cut in which decisions are made subconsciously and within milliseconds. This is the forum in which online success is made or missed.

The 150 Millisecond Gap: The Timing of Brand Love

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting room at Simon Fraser University, looking at two squiggly lines on a graph in a Powerpoint slide. In fact, five of us in the room were all looking at it intently. Among the five of us, there was a PhD and a handful of Masters degrees in Neurology and Psychology. I contributed nothing to this impressive collection of academic achievement. Still, there was something on the chart that fascinated me.


The chart was the result of a neuroscanning experiment we conducted with SFU and Isabel Taake and Dr. Mario Liotti last year.  We were exploring how the brain responded to brands we like, brands we don’t like and brands we could care less about. The study was an ERP (Event Related Brain Potential) study. The idea of the study was to divide up the groups, based on brands they buy and brands they don’t buy and measure their brain waves as they’re presented with pictures of the brands with an EEG scanner. After, these waves were averaged and the averages of each group were compared with each other. What we were looking for were differences between the waves. We were looking for gaps.

It turned out we found two gaps. The brain waves are measured based on time, in millisecond increments. When we initially did the study, we were looking for something called the DM effect. This effect has been shown to represent a difference in how we encode memories and how effective we are in retrieving them later. We wanted to see if well liked brands showed different levels of brain activity when it came to memory encoding than neutral or disliked brands. The answer, as it turned out, was a qualified yes. What was most interesting, however, was the difference in the brain waves we saw when people were presented pictures of  brands they love and brands they either dislike or  feel ambivalent about. There was something going on here, and it was happening in two places. The first was happening very quickly, literally in the blink of an eye. We found our first gap right around 150 milliseconds – in just over 1/10th of a second. The second gap was a little later, at about 450 milliseconds, or about half a second.

Brands = Faces?

Previous ERP work often used faces as the visual stimuli that subjects were presented with. Researchers like working with faces because the human brain is so well attuned to responding to faces. As a stimuli, they provide plenty of signal with little noise. What researchers found is that there were significant differences in how our brains processes well known faces and unknown faces. They also found differences in how we processed smiling faces and scowling faces. And the differences in processing showed up in two places, one in the 150 millisecond range and the second at about 300 – 500 milliseconds. The first gap is what neurologists call the Vertex Positive Potential. The second is called the P300. I’ll explain what each of these means in more depth in a second.

What was interesting with this study is that we were seeing the same  thing play out when we substituted familiar brands for familiar faces. Respondents were responding to brands they liked the same way they would respond to a friendly face they recognized. So, what’s the big deal about that? And why two gaps? What was the significance of the 300 milliseconds that separate the two? Well, it’s the difference between gut instinct and rational thought. What we might have been seeing, as we stared at the projector screen, was two very different parts of the brain processing the same thought, with the first setting up the second.

The Quick Loop and the Slow Loop

Neurologists, including Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio, have found that as we live our lives, our brains can respond to certain people, things and situations in two different ways.

The first is the quick and dirty loop. This expressway in our brain literally rips through the ancient, more primal part of our brain – what has popularly been called the Lizard brain (neurologists and psychologists hate this term, by the way). Why? Because if we hesitate in dangerous situations, we’re dead. So, we have a hair trigger response mechanism that alerts us to danger in a blink of an eye. How quick is this response? Well, coincidentally, it’s usually measured in the 100 to 200 millisecond range. This is the VPP, the Vertex Positive Potential. It’s an emotional processing of a stimulus, an immediate assessment of threat or reward.

Previous research (Jeffreys Takumachi 1992) found that the VPP is common when we see faces but could also be found when we looked at some objects.  Some, but not all objects. What we (and by we, I mean Isabel and Dr. Liotti) did was substitute preferred and non-preferred brands for faces. And we saw the same VPP gap. Typically, this early processing is done by the amygdala (our danger detection module) and other areas of the brain including the orbitofrontal cortex.  If you look at the map of neural activity, you’ll find more frontal activity in the “Buy” group. The brain is responding emotionally to what it is seeing and it’s doing so almost instantaneously, in the blink of an eye.


But then there’s a slower loop that feeds the signal up to our prefrontal cortex, where there’s a more deliberate processing of the signal. If the signal turns out to be non threatening, the brain damps down the alarms and returns the brain to it’s pre-alert status. Cooler heads prevail, quite literally. The time for this more circuitous path? About half a second, give or take a few milliseconds. This more deliberate evaluation represents the second gap, the P300 gap, we saw in our averaged brain waves. This is a more deliberate evaluation of the stimulus. It’s here where our reasoning brains kick in and either contradict or reinforce the early signals of the VPP gap. If it’s a smiling face, we go beyond instant recognition and start to retrieve (from memory) our concept of the person behind the face. The same is true, I suspect, for our favorite brands. The neural map here shows the difference in scalp potential activity between the “Buy” group and the “Non-Buy” group. The heat we see is the home of brand love.


Where Brand Love Lives

In neurological research, different methods deliver different insights. The ERP methodology we used provides accurate timing, thus the discovery of the 150 and 450 ms gaps. But fMRI scanning provides accurate tracking of the exact locations of neural activity. Another study, conducted in 2004, starts to give us some clues as to exactly where brand love lives. Dr. Read Montague and a team at Baylor University staged a rather elaborate repeat of the Coke-Pepsi Challenge, but this time, people took the challenge while they were in a fMRI scanner. I’ve written before about the study if you’re interested in more detail about how they pulled it off.  Today, what I want to talk about is where in the brain brand love lives.

Coke is one of the most beloved brands in the world. It elicits strong loyalty amongst its fans, to the point where they swear it tastes much better than it’s rival – Pepsi. Well, as Montague found, if they didn’t know what they’re drinking, this isn’t really true. Even the most fervent Coke fan often choose Pepsi as their preferred drink when they didn’t know what they were drinking. But when they knew the brand they were tasting, something very interesting happened. Suddenly, other parts of the Coke fan’s brain started lighting up.


The hippocampus, the left parahippocampal cortex, the midbrain and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex started lighting up. This is significant because it indicates that the brain was actually retrieving concepts and beliefs from memory (the hippocampal activity) and the retrieved concepts were being integrated into feelings of reward (the prefrontal cortical activity). The brain was enhancing the physical sensation of taste with the full strength of brand love.


Perhaps we’re starting to see not only the home of brand love, but also the timing. This was why I fixated on that small gap between the squiggly lines at 150 milliseconds. It’s because this represented our immediate, visceral response to brands. Before the brain really kicks in at all, we are already passing judgement on brands. And this judgement will color everything that comes after it. It sets the stage for our subsequent brand evaluations, happening at the 450 ms gap. This is when the brain structures identified in the Baylor study start to kick in and reinforce that “blink of an eye” first impression. Brands appear to deliver a one-two punch.

We’re currently planning our follow up research for 2010. I’m not exactly sure what it will entail, but you can bet we’ll be looking much closer at those 150 and 450 ms gaps!

The Meeting of the Mind and Marketing: 11 Books to Read

First published October 15, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s official! With this column, I break David Berkowitz’s Search Insider column count record, with 225 of my own. And to commemorate the occasion, I wanted to follow up on a request that came in response to my column two weeks ago. I had warned any would-be students of human nature that this wasn’t a quest to be taken lightly. A few readers responded by asking for a recommended reading list.

So this week, I went through my bookshelf at home and jotted down a list of titles that I found particularly insightful or interesting in understanding the human condition. Today, I offer them as suggestions for some fall or winter reading. I came up with 22 titles, so I’ve broken them into two groups. This week, all the titles are specifically for those who want to explore the intersection between marketing and the way our minds work.“How Customers Think” — Gerald Zaltman. Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman has carved out a nice little career by exploring the psychology of consumerism. The foundation of Zaltman’s approach is his metaphor elicitation technique. Metaphors are linguistic keys to some of the darker workings of our mind, and Zaltman shows how these can be used as a Rosetta stone to unlock consumers’ true feelings towards brands and products. A fascinating approach suffers a little from Zaltman’s dry and overly academic writing style, but it’s a very worthy candidate for the list.

“The Culture Code” — Clotaire Rapaille. If Zaltman is a little stodgy and academic, Rapaille is an unabashed French nouveau-riche pop psychologist who has used his decidedly qualitative approach to dig down to the cultural common denominators behind our brand relationships. This book looks for those labels cultures apply to some of the best-known brands in the world. Being French, Rapaille brings an occasionally charming European cultural arrogance to his subject (i.e. in France, the culture code for cheese is “alive”, but in the U.S. it’s “dead”). This is  an easy and interesting read; while you might have some quibbles with Rapaille’s findings, he has plenty of willing customers among the Fortune 500.

“Buy-ology” — Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom’s ego is almost matched by the insight he brings in his latest book. Lindstrom is the self-styled guru of brand perception and has written before on how our senses interpret brands. In “Buy-ology,” he goes one step further and launches an extensive brain scanning research project to see exactly what happens in our brains when we think about brands. For example, do the warning labels on a pack of cigarettes have any impact on our desire for a smoke? Does product placement really work? (The answer, in both cases, is no, according to Lindstrom) Don’t worry about getting caught in academic jargon here. Lindstrom keeps it light and readable.

“Why Choose This Book?” — Read Montague. Baylor University neurologist Montague was behind the original Pepsi Challenge fMRI test — and in this book, he takes on no less a challenge than explaining how we make decisions. The writing style’s a little uneven, as Montague tries to balance his academic background with a style overly determined to appeal to a wider audience. That said, Montague knows his stuff and the insights here are solid, supported by both his own and others’ research.

“Predictably Irrational” — Dan Ariely.  Ariely follows in the footsteps of behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky by looking at some of the common irrational biases of humans. For example, why does a 50-cent aspirin eliminate a headache better than a 5-cent generic brand, even though the pills are identical? And why would offering your mother-in-law $300 for a fabulous meal be an unforgivable social transgression, yet be expected in a restaurant? The territory has been covered before, but Ariely deals with a highly interesting topic with a nice, light touch.

“The Mind of the Market” — Michael Shermer. Last but not least, Michael Shermer delivers what I consider to be a tour-de-force on this topic. Shermer’s approach is well-grounded in evolutionary psychology (he labels it evolutionary economics), so he and I share a common approach to understanding consumer behavior. He strikes the right balance in his writing, delivering solid information without worrying too much about how it might play for a wider audience. This is probably my favorite on this list.

If these six titles whet your appetite, here are some other titles you might consider:

“Driven” by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria

“Why We Buy” by Paco Underhill

“The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz

“The Advertised Mind” by Erik Du Plessis

“Brain Rules’ by John Medina

Next week I’ll share another 11 books, as well as some reader suggestions. Feel free to keep the suggestions coming!