Cordelia Fine on Neuromarketing [Video]: A Self-Control Depleating Spray, Anyone?

During our recent meeting of “The Mind and the Brain” book club, we had a stimulating discussion of Cordelia Fine’s book “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.” One of the many intriguing take-aways from this book is that our subconcsious brain is sensitive to various triggers in our environment. These triggers influence our behavior although we don’t even recognize it. Our conscious brain is good at providing explanations why we acted the way we did after the fact. Unfortunately, these explanations may be nothing more than convenient fabrications to keep us comfortable and content.

In the video below, Cordelia Fine discusses research into certain tactics that provoke impulse desires in people and influence consumer behavior.   She also raises important questions about ethical implications of the use of these discoveries in neuromarketing.  Watch the video and let me know what you think, from the perspective of  a marketer, a consumer, or both.  Awareness may be our best tool in the battle for our attention.

By | 2010-05-09T00:02:52+00:00 May 8th, 2010|Books, Communication|0 Comments

Your Brain on Beauty

“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
~ Buckminster Fuller

Last week, I attended the Opening Night of Ice Theatre of New York’s 2010 Home Season with the guest performance by three-time National Champion and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir.  The ice show was an inspiring and spectacular blend of skating, dance, music, and art.  It was a perfect example of brain captivation where passion, vision, resilience, and continuous practice are transformed into an exhibit of mastery and beauty.

Since I’ve started writing my book and exploring the topics of attention, brain captivation, and influence, I am happy to say that my daily experiences fuel my book project, posing more questions and giving me the pleasure of an occasional insight.  That night was no different as I was pondering how beauty influenced the brain, feeling its impact first-hand.

Beauty is not the term we often use when we talk about influence and leadership, but watching the ice show made me think about beauty as an attribute of masterful performance.  Beauty evokes emotions and inspires.   Effective influencers know how to inspire people and understand human emotions.  We can all appreciate beauty and wouldn’t mind having more of it in our lives.

Is our brain sensitive to beauty?  Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

Neuroscience studies suggest that our brain is hard-wired for certain elements of beauty, such as symmetry, for example.  The brain reacts to symmetry in the occipital lobe, the primary area that responds to visual stimuli. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that people instinctively scan a visual object for symmetrical qualities in less than .05 of a second.

In one study, researchers showed subjects with no knowledge of art criticism various images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures as they used fMRI to study the subjects’ patterns of brain activation. Some of the images had canonical proportions while the proportions of others were altered to degrade their aesthetic value.  Looking at the images of normal proportions activated specific sets of cortical neurons as well as the insula, a structure mediating emotions.  Distorted proportions failed to activate these areas of the brain.  These results suggest that the brain may be hard-wired to perceive balanced proportions universally.

Next, the subjects were asked to evaluate whether the sculptures were aesthetic.  This time, the images judged to be beautiful activated the right amygdala, a structure associated with learned emotional experiences.  Thus, our aesthetical taste has a lot to do with our personal experiences of art.

The study suggests that both biology and personal emotional experience contribute to our perception of art and beauty.

And then, there is beauty bias when it comes to faces.  A study from the University of Pennsylvania indicates that our brains judge attractiveness of faces within a fraction of a second based on very limited information. Study participants were asked to rate faces of non-famous men and women that they viewed for just .013 of a second on a computer screen.  Although the subjects reported that they could not see the faces and that they were guessing on each trial, they were able to accurately rate the attractiveness of those faces.

The same study indicates that pretty faces “prime” or make it more likely for people to experience positive emotions.  According to Ingrid Olson, a professor in Penn’s Department of Psychology and researcher at Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neurosciece attractive people “receive more attention in most facets of life” along with other social and economic benefits.  Clearly, brains can be captivated and fooled by good looks.

But when it comes to a performance by a dancer or figure skater, what enables the artist to communicate emotions to the audience without speaking?  The answer probably lies in the activity of mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons fire not only when we perform a particular action but also when we watch someone else perform that same action.  When our brain “mirrors” others, we can empathize with them and understand what they feel.

Recent studies demonstrate that mirror neurons are located in more areas of the human brain than previously thought.  The researchers recorded them in motor regions of the brain and also in areas involved in vision and memory.  Mirror neurons explain how we can get better at sports, for example, by watching others who are good at it.  Our mirror neurons in motor regions are at work even when we sit still and observe.

In conclusion, here are a few take-aways for aspiring influencers to consider:

1.  Perhaps, I am stating the obvious here but we still fall for the beauty bias and advertisers know it well.   Beware that attractive faces can warp your rational brain and affect your judgment by priming you for positive emotions.  If you need to watch your budget, be vigilant and don’t make impulsive purchases when you talk to an attractive sales person.

2.  Brains may have an easier time grasping information presented in the visual form that has symmetry and balanced proportions.  It is no surprise that visuals help cognitive processing because we can see and remember a picture much better than individual words and sentences used to describe the same picture.   Our working memory can hold only about seven pieces of information at a time.  Visuals enable us to chunk information and overcome the limits of our conscious processing center.  A visual with balanced proportions may help even more.

3.  Possibly, the most important beauty tool in the influencer’s toolkit is the emotional touch.  Influencers need to know how emotions work their ways through presentations, speeches, and important conversations.  We pay a lot of attention to developing solid and engaging content, but not enough to the emotional details of its delivery.

The capacity of our conscious mind is quite small compared to the vast subconscious brain maps.  Emotions guide our decisions and behavior much more than our rational brain is willing to admit.  We need to awaken our inner artist to be able to better connect with the audience on this powerful emotional level.  The mirror neurons in your audience’s brains are ready to watch you and the emotions you project.  Your confidence, charisma, passion are all picked up by the observant brain.  And the same brain tunes in to your insecurities, indifference, or anxiety.  You create your audience’s mood.  If you have not thought of yourself as an artist, perhaps, it is time to embrace your new role and, paraphrasing Buckminster Fuller’s quote above, start creating beautiful and inspiring solutions because beauty captivates the brain.

By | 2010-05-06T21:12:48+00:00 May 6th, 2010|Brain, Communication|0 Comments

Brains Driven to Distraction: The Urge to Search

If your typical day feels like a rush of harried interactions and distractions, you are not alone.  TheUrge to Search prevalence of virtual communication makes it easy to leave a conversation mid-sentence as soon as our attention is highjacked by another urgent message.  Although we consider it poor etiquette to engage in multitasking while talking to someone face to face or even over the phone, many of us feel no qualms multitasking when we respond to emails or type text messages.  Mental noise and distractions become routine: unrelated thoughts buzzing in our heads as we are trying to concentrate on a project, ringing phones, interrupting colleagues, urgent phone messages and emails.  Everything and everybody fight for our attention.

Although we often complain about distractions, an honest introspection will force many to admit that we sometimes enjoy this hectic pace of hopping from task to task, from conversation to conversation.  I, for once, feel that my brain is impacted by heavy computer use.  Reading a long article online without succumbing to the urge to tweet about it mid-page takes effort.  I may also be guilty of stealing a glance at the computer screen while talking to my husband.  He usually calls me out for that.

What drives our brains to distraction?  Blame our wired urge to search.

In 2009, The New York Times published an article titled “As Jurors Turn to Web, Mistrials Are Popping Up,” reporting on the increased number of mistrials as jurors around the country used their BlackBerrys and iPhones to seek information about cases beyond the admissible evidence.  Jurors are prohibited from gathering or sharing facts about the cases outside the courtroom, so judges had no choice but to declare mistrials.  Months of work were wasted as the jurors’ urge to search prevailed over common sense and direct instructions.

Our brains prefer stimulation over boredom.  The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns.  That’s how we learn.  The brain makes sense of the world around us by predicting certain outcomes, comparing these predictions to what actually happens and detecting prediction errors.  Based on this information, our dopamine neurons adjust their expectations, enabling us to learn from our past experiences.

When the brain is busy predicting, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for focused attention and more pleasurable experience.  Interestingly, our prediction neurons become even more excited when there is no pattern to be found.

In Slate’s article “Seeking,” Emily Yoffe writes:

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

Distractions provide novelty and stimulation to our brains while maintaining the sense that we can never figure it all out, so the search for meaning continues.

…It feels like it’s time to check for updates on a fan page I frequent.  My brain doesn’t want to miss a thing.

By | 2010-05-06T15:39:41+00:00 May 6th, 2010|Attention|0 Comments

15 Amazing Examples of Neuroplasticity in Action

If you ever doubt your ability to change, or feel stuck in your old ways, or wonder if it’s too late, what I am about to share with you may surprise or amaze you.  That was my reaction.  The current science of the brain changed what I learned about the brain in the mid-1990s when I studied linguistics and cognition, and it wasn’t even that long ago.

The truth is that we are continuously changing although we may not always realize it.  For example, most of the cells and tissues in the human body keep regenerating and are much younger than the person in which they are found.  You may have heard a statement that our body changes every 7 years.  The average age depends on the types of cells and tissues, some take much less time to renew, others take longer.  You habits and your lifestyle all have an impact on how your body turns out.

Neuroscientists tell us now that our brain can also rejuvenate and improve itself.  Our brain forms new neurons throughout our lives, and the connections and functions in the brain change as well. What we do day to day influences our brain’s function, and we can participate actively and consciously in the rewiring of our brain. The brain’s ability to rewire itself as a result of life experiences is called neuroplasticity.  That’s right, our brains are plastic.

Norman Doidge in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science” talks about a paradox of change.  The forces that enable us to change are also responsible for keeping us stuck.  If we keep doing the same, we may think nothing changes, but in fact, the more we repeat a certain behavior, the stronger the corresponding pathway in the brain grows, making it more difficult to unlearn the pattern.  The good news is that the same principle applies when we learn a new skill or habit.  The more attention we pay to it and the more we practice it, the easier it will become.

As you read the following remarkable examples of neuroplasticity in action, consider how much power you actually have to shape your brain and your life.  It’s never too late to change and build new good habits.

1.  The adult human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons.  Education increases the number of branches among neurons, increasing the volume and thickness of the brain.  Brain is like a muscle that needs mental work-outs.  Learning and brain exercises slow age-related mental decline and even improve brain function.

2.  Physical exercise promotes creation of new neurons in the brain, the process known as neurogenesis.  It also stimulates sensory and motor cortices and helps the brain’s balance system.

3.  As we age, we tend to shift cognitive activities from one lobe in the brain to another.  There is also an indication that we use both hemispheres as we age for the tasks that used to take place in just one hemisphere.  Perhaps, the brain optimizes itself to compensate for any weaknesses.

4.  Specifically designed brain exercises have been shown to strengthen weak brain functions in children and adults with learning disabilities. For example, rote memorization can help the auditory memory.  Handwriting strengthens motor capacities, and adds speed and fluency to reading.

5.  Stroke patients recover some lost abilities when the brain reorganizes itself to move functions from the damages location to a new one.

6.  Because the brain physically changes its state as we think, it is possible to measure the changes electronically.  As a result, there’s technology that allows completely paralyzed people move objects with their thoughts and interact with computers.

7.  V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, uses imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps and help people manage their phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain, which he believes to be a construct of the brain that is projected on to the body.  For example, his invention of the mirror box helped many amputees get rid of the pain in the phantom limb. The brain is tricked into believing that the phantom limb is moving when the patient sees a mirror reflection of the moving good limb in the mirror box.

8.  People can improve performance through visualizations because action and imagination often activate the same parts of the brain.  When we need to learn a physical skill, mental practice of this skill can produce the same physical changes in the motor system as the physical practice.  This effect has been achieved in experiments that involved people learning to play the piano, as well as athletes in training.

9.  If you were to wear blindfolds for two days, your visual cortex would reorganize itself to process sound and touch.  Once you take the blindfolds off, the visual cortex will stop responding to tactile or auditory signals within twelve or twenty-four hours.

10.  The Sea Gypsies, Nomadic people who live in a cluster of tropical islands in the Burmese archipelago and spend most of their lives in boats on the open sea, can see clearly under water at great depths because they learn to control the shape of their lenses and the side of their pupils, constricting them 22%.  Most of us can’t do that, and pupil adjustment has been considered to be affixed, innate reflex.  However, in one study, Swedish children were able to learn the trick, and their brains responded to the training.

11.  London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to bus drivers.  It’s because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.

12.  Collaboration between Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dalai Lama explored the effects of meditation on the brain.  The researchers compared the trained minds of the monks and those of the volunteers.  The results showed much greater activation of powerful gamma waves in the monks than in the students during meditation.  Moreover, even when the participants were not meditating, the trained meditators’ brains showed a large increase in the gamma signal.  In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the meditators.  The intense gamma waves signaled higher mental activity and heightened awareness.

13.  Plastic changes also occur in musicians’ brains compared to non-musicians. Research shows that gray matter (cortex) volume is highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas. There is also a dark side to neuroplasticity in musicians.  When a musician frequently uses two fingers together while playing the instrument, the brain maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse in such a way that the musician can’t move one finger without the other.  This is a condition called “focal dystonia.”  To play again, the musician’s brain maps have to be separated through special training.

14.  Learning to juggle can increase gray matter in the occipito-temporal cortex as early as after 7 days of training.

15.  Extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. Brains of medical students showed learning-induced changes in the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus – brain regions involved in memory retrieval and learning.


Begley, Sharon. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Ballantine Books.

Doidge, N. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York:Viking.

Davidson, R. J., J. Kabat-Zinn, J. Schumacher, M. Rosenkranz, D. Muller, S.F. Santorelli, F. Urbanowski, A. Harrington, K. Bonus, and J.F. Sheridan. 2003. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 65 (4):564–570.

Draganski, B., C. Gaser, G. Kempermann, H.G. Kuhn, J. Winkler, C. Buchel, and A. May. 2006. Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience. 26:6314–6317.

Gaser, C. and G. Schlaug. 2003. Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:9240 – 9245.

Maguire, E.A., K. Woolett and H.J. Spiers. 2006. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 16:1091-1101.

Schwartz, J.M. and S. Begley. 2002. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Collins.

By | 2010-05-04T23:33:28+00:00 May 4th, 2010|Change|0 Comments

Rewire your brain to facilitate change

By nature, we don’t like change.  Our brains are wired to do lots of things on autopilot to conserve energy and resources.  This autopilot mechanism allows us to function in the world without being overwhelmed with the multitude of decisions we would have to make otherwise.   The downside is that the same mechanism interferes with our plans to build new habits by repeating and reinforcing our old behaviors.  The good news is that we can rewire our brains and change despite our natural propensity to maintain the status-quo.

Recent developments in the field of neuroscience shed light on how we can facilitate change.  Neuroscientists tell us now that the brain makes about 10,000 new cells ever day, and each cell makes around 10,000 connections to other brain cells over the successive period of four months.  We are continuously producing new brain cells and create new pathways in our brain.  The remarkable thing is that we can participate actively and consciously in the rewiring of our brains to produce healthier life habits. The brain’s ability to rewire itself is called neuroplasticity.   Depending on where we focus our attention, we are going to build different sets of connections and different pathways.  Our habits will develop accordingly.  (If you want to learn more about this amazing potential we all have, check out “The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley.)

Imagine that you are on a plane flying over a city at night.  You look down and see the city lights. They appear like a golden carpet, it’s a beautiful view.  As you look closer, you notice that some parts of the city are dark, and other parts are very well lit.  You can also identify big roads and highways by the lights that run alongside those roads. The whole infrastructure of the city is right there in front of your eyes.

Now, picture that the grooves in the brain are like those well-lit highways.  When certain information enters the brain, specific pathways are activated.  The pathways that light up a lot become our default routes that represent our familiar patterns of behavior.  For example, if we use food to relieve stress or negative emotions, after a while, it becomes our default behavior, and the hand goes for a cookie jar almost automatically.  If we want to change our behavior, we need to start creating new pathways in the brain and make them the new default through focused attention, consistency, and repetition.

What undesirable habits appear almost automatic in your life?
At which point do you decide to go down a familiar route of behavior?

Becoming more aware of your choices and actions is the first step to facilitating positive change and creating better alternatives.

By | 2010-05-04T23:22:02+00:00 May 4th, 2010|Change|0 Comments