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If the Brain Has Changed, Our Game Can't Remain the Same: Five Ways Brands Must Change

03/09/2014 14:22 BST | Updated 02/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Dan Machen, Director of Innovation, Hey Human

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As ad agency innovator types, we keep coming up against a familiar pushback: 'There's no such thing as new human behaviours; it's just old behaviours expressed in new ways through technology.' This makes logical sense to me - there's just one problem: deep down I no longer believe it. My disquiet has grown so much that I've pitched to speak at SXSW - March's giant tech/innovation conference - to try to get closer to the bottom of this. (Enlisting some friendly neighbourhood neuroscientists. As you do.)

But before boldly going forward, let's step back - concern over technology twisting our melons (man) is nothing new. Socrates no less cites Ancient Egyptian King Thamus, remarking on the introduction of writing: "This invention will produce forgetfulness in those using it, because they will not practise their memory."

Fast-forward a few millennia and concern over technology affecting our brains persists - and is getting louder and more dystopian. In Luc Besson's latest thriller, Lucy, Scarlett Johansson plays the first person to access 100% of her brain and memory. However, by increasing her brain cells' connectivity - consequently gaining superhuman powers - Lucy seemingly sacrifices her humanity.

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[All rights reserved: Lucy Movie]

The film deploys the ubiquitous myth that 'we only use 10% of our brain'. In fact, obviously 90% is not redundant; functioning like series of parallel processors, the brain activates different areas depending on tasks. Key to this is the concept of 'neuroplasticity', where brain cells reform (like plastic) to reinforce pathways, based on new activities.

"At a microcellular level, the infinitely complex network of nerve cells making up the brain actually changes in response to certain experiences and stimuli."

Professor Susan Greenfield, leading UK neuroscientist

Several studies have shown the brain's 'plastic' ability, even in adulthood. A 2011 study at UCL found that London cabbies learning 'the knowledge' enlarge the spatial-memory area of their brains. Similarly, Harvard Medical School found pianists enlarge the areas related to finger control. It seems any activity stimulating the mind and/or body can significantly rewire neural pathways and even memory - positively and negatively, e.g. pianists vs. addicts.

Accepting neuroplasticity, a really profound question arises: What in the name of sweet holy Moses is our digital-device 'fix' doing to our noggins? Are these major shifts - the web, search engines, smartphones particularly - not merely changing behaviours, but capability in the longer term? A lot of excellent research on attention spans and comms recall says: yes - tech is changing behaviour and abilities, and we must wise up to this now.

Recent research in the UK by OMD Worldwide indicates a significant reduction in average attention spans - with people looking at phones 150 times per day, switching devices 21 times each hour and using multiple devices simultaneously; 500% more than three years ago. So we are connected more, but retaining less - how many phone numbers can you recall now?

WARC's fascinating 'Zero Moment of Memory' paper concerns the 'transactive memory' concept coined originally by Daniel Wegner in 1985 - i.e. sharing things to remember, like an older couple on a trip ("You get the passports, I'll get the euros... "). We now share memory - except our transactive partner(s) are the internet and smartphones. Have we outsourced human memory to the degradation of our human cerebral abilities?

"Digital technology is a double-edged sword - although it can be great assisting me in remembering things, it also has the reverse effect by forcing me to use my own brain and internal memory less. And the less you use something, the less it's going to work!"

WARC Respondent

Unsurprisingly, with reduced memory comes reduced engagement. As part of the same WARC study, two groups were engaged with content, one supported by video. While neurologically there was a richer experience, the video actually served as a distraction - reducing recall. So, while we have an ever-richer communications experience, we have poorer retention of typical messaging. The other major finding was that recall over time among heavy smartphone users was disproportionately (20%) poorer than non-users!

Taken as a whole, these findings have vital implications for brands and marketers - not to mention the future of the human mind. We must halt technology's erosion of memory/cognition, and use marcomms to proactively employ neuroplasticity to 'game the brain' - inducing positive change.

5 WIP thought-starters on gaming the brain:

• Short-term ads on digital devices should be media-enriched to increase neural stimulation and avoid cognitive dissonance

• With tech-reliant people less likely to recall messaging, mnemonics are vital - based on spatial, personal or otherwise 'relatable' information

• Wearables must move towards proactively anticipating needs; 'glanceable' info/ads 'created not just at that moment, but for that moment'

• Cloud storage will likely become more ubiquitous - and more heavily a 'transactive partner'

• Personal data organisation will grow in value - 'the search engine of self' is a future service design opportunity

In The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection, Michael Harris writes: "Repetition of stimuli produces a strengthening of responding neural circuits. Neglect of other stimuli will cause corresponding circuits to weaken. (Grannies maintaining their crossword puzzle regime knew that already.)"

You don't need 100% of your brain to intuit the potential of neuroplasticity and technology's impact - for good and ill - on the way we react, recall and respond. We need to act today to save tomorrow.

Dan Machen & Felix Morgan, Innovators at Hey Human, have proposed a talk on this topic for SXSW 2015: 'Neuroplasticity and Technology: Why Brands Must Change.'

"Consulting with neuroscience experts from around the world, we will explore the critical challenge we face as marketers in the digital age - whether technology empowers existing behaviours in positive new ways, or is actually causing a negative revolution in the way we react, recall and respond."

The deadline to support this talk is Sept 5th 2014! PLEASE register and click here now to vote and share this link:

http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/33111