SXSW: Neuroplasticity and Tech: Why Brands Have to Change

“’A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man’ – Bill Bernbach.
Respectfully to Mr. Bernbach, that’s BS.” – Dan Machen

The first day of SXSW kicked off with a killer presentation from UK agency Hey Human, which has so far taken the cake for best session in my book. While many people complain that the programming for SXSW can be hit or miss, this content-heavy session held a packed room in rapture for the better part of an hour.

Dan Machen and Felix Morgan took us through a fascinating tour of the changing wiring of human brains as a result of our technical dependence. Both brilliant and terrifying, the session was certainly eye opening.

The main question raised: What is all this stimuli from tech doing to our heads? What are the implications for recall and memory and communication?

They cited one word as coming up repeatedly: neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a physical change in the brain where your brain adapts to whatever stimuli you’re exposed to. So whatever behaviors you habituate, your brain will adjust to mold to those behaviors to make them easier to repeat in the future. Everything done to us, and everything you do continues to change the brain into adulthood.

For example, studies have shown that London Taxi drivers have better memories than the average Londoner. Learning maps and directions of a complicated city like London is a months-long process that was found to significantly increase the size of the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain).

Additionally, the idea of multitasking is actually a misnomer. What people are doing every day by switching tabs and devices is actually “task-switching,” which has serious implications for long-term memory. The challenge is that in a high stimuli environment a lot of information goes to the straeta – which is the learning center of the brain – and never makes it to the hippocampus (the best section for memory recall). This means that information that should be getting processed and stored for easy access is getting lost.

Machen and Morgan argued that what we’re witnessing with technology is almost a devolution. We default to Google to find an answer for something we should know, essentially turning our devices into our transactive memory partners – a position previously held by other humans.

A few questions posed include: does technology allow us to multitask more efficiently or just distract us? Are we more nimble or just addicted and habituated to shallow interactions that challenge our long-term memory? And what does the shortened attention span and heightened distraction level mean for brands?

Essentially, the mission for brands boils down to one thing: keep it simple. Digital devices have complicated as much as they’ve simplified and people gravitate towards ease. Brands should make communication easy again.

So if our conscious funnel is overloaded, how can we use unconscious means to get attention? Five tips offered include:

·      Think in stereo: visual and sound working in perfect harmony. People task-switching while watching TV aren’t paying attention to the ads, but sometimes sound queues can grab attention again.
·      Surprise with simplicity: If someone understands what you’re saying easily, they’ll like you more. As brands, think from the experience perspective, not the channel perspective. How can you make the consumer’s next best action simpler?
·      Maximize memory value: When people are struggling to keep up they’ll turn to things that make it easier, such as Microsoft Cortana creating a positive transactive relationship with their users.
·      Compound non-conscious nudges: When we use key brand assets in clever ways it helps to build mental recall. Low level processing is really important, so create brand assets that don’t require much to remember and build a strong brand.
·      Conquer context – People can sift through a lot of data to find something, if it’s relevant.

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with a fantastic Honda ad that was shown to break through the clutter. It uses music to grab your attention and then the message becomes the medium to make you watch the whole thing. Did you catch it all?