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The brain’s implicit sensing tools

June 11, 2013 0 Comments

visual-illusionA thread that runs through quite a number of the journalistic treatments I read about neuroscience applied to commercial stimuli (like ads, products, and brands) is fear … fear of a “Manchurian Candidate” technique that will turn people into consuming robots, fear of privacy, fear of science being co-opted by greedy corporations at the expense of the powerless private consumer.

Much of this fear, I believe, comes from a misunderstanding of exactly how our brains operate at the nonconscious level.  People seem to imagine the brain as a passive recipient, sitting there (floating there?) innocently, waiting to be infected by the alien probe, the “trigger program” that fires off the “buy button.”

This is just bad science.  We should have more respect for our brains and their capabilities.  In fact what happens in our brains every second is a highly effective filtering system, tuned by evolution to be quite good at its job.  And much of that job is to actively keep things out, not let any old message in to have its way with us.

Maybe if we focused more on the receiving system, rather than the message, we could rebalance the perception a bit.  Maybe if we talked more about the brain’s “sensing tools” rather than the “subliminal messages” and “nonconscious primes” those sensing tools detect, we would see the process as less passive, less threatening.

What is astounding about our sensing tools is how well they work, in the background, without requiring the spotlight of attention and conscious thought.  We are constantly sizing up our situation, determining what to approach and avoid, and adjusting the cognitive and emotional tags we use to compute the meaning and reward-threat potential of all the objects in our immediate environment.  And in general, we do a pretty good job of it.

Implicit processes are constantly at work in all of our interactions with our world – from family and friends to music groups to ketchup bottles.  These are impressive and powerful processes, and we should have more respect for them.

This post, with minor variations, was originally posted in an earlier blog of mine on June 8, 2009.

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About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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