The new digital brain
Several studies claim that our participation in, and focus on digital media is literally re-wiring our brains.
‘Neuroplacticity’ is the idea that our brain physically changes depending on the demands we place on it.
Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone in the mid-1990s found that people who imagined themselves playing a piece of music on the piano experienced the same physical changes to the brain as those who actually played the piano.
The implication is that changes in the brain can be caused not only by external stimulus or conscious activity, but also by focusing on an imagined activity or stimulus. Is digital media causing something similar?
Digital natives’ particularly intense and extensive exposure to a digital environment means they have:
- Greater ‘fluid intelligence’: Enhanced ability to find solutions to practical problems and developing shorter reaction times – relying on ‘search’, ‘bypass’ and ‘build’ instincts.
- Greater ‘multi-tasking’ activity, or more accurately ‘task-switching’ ability.
- More ability to engage in a wider range of activities and contexts, if much more superficially.
Digital natives are more receptive to games and challenges that can be addressed using their fluid intelligence.
At the same time, their relatively lower attention span means they are less interested in up-front complexity and brands are finding it more difficult to maintain their involvement.
Social media is addictive
The addictive substance in social media is not its content but the process of sharing itself.
Neuroscience can show how social sharing activates the reward centre of the brain, triggering the release of dopamine, the same pleasure hormone that drives us to seek pleasure in food, exercise or sex.
The same mechanism is involved in social sharing – the quest for another dopamine hit drives us to re-share, to comment and to like, all in the expectation of getting a response. As dopamine’s effect decays over time, apps helpfully notify us of updates, triggering a craving for another hit and keeping the cycle moving.
A clever campaign by Australia’s Tiger Air leveraged this loop. They found that 34% of all sales during the campaign occurred within the first 20 minutes of people sharing Tiger Air’s content on social media. Using this, once a person had shared a piece of Tiger Air content, they were targeted with communication in social media within 20 minutes, giving them the share/response “hit”.
Is subtlety dead?
Spending time on social media rather than face-to-face with other people, research has found, changes people.
Firstly, it leads to a deficiency in social skills. We lose fluency in interpreting very important nuances – such as facial expression, tone of voice and body movements – because of our relative lack of exposure to them. This does not mean people no longer understand emotion, and it is not that people are less visually aware – other research has shown subtle use of visual brand cues can be more effective in certain contexts.
However, in a world where we specifically indicate our feelings using a predefined set of emojis in digital communication, it is not surprising that the subtleties of the old form of non-verbal communication are fading. This lack of fluency can lead to lack of relevance of those cues for digital natives.
Secondly, there is evidence to suggest, due to digital influence, younger people’s brains are becoming less attuned to ideas and more to sensory experiences.
According to Dr. Susan Greenfield, digital natives are much more plugged into emotional, physical and other sensations and less fluent in grasping abstract concepts, like brands. This may be a challenge for brands that must now make their brand more concrete in the mind of an audience that prioritises experiences over ideas.
The digital prisoner’s dilemma: do I experience or record?
Can you really live an experience and record it at the same time?
On the one hand research indicates that people who take pictures during an activity experience less involvement, excitement and satisfaction than others who focus on what they are doing or are part of at the time.
Equally, experiments have shown how strolling through lively urban streetscapes and green spaces have a positive effect on mind and body, but this effect is confounded by interruptions or augmentations to the environment like Pokémon Go or GPS.
On the other hand augmented reality games like, Pokémon Go have been shown to produce forms of social interaction and layered emotional impact triggering dopamine release. The same dopamine release has been seen resulting from interacting on social media.
Can we have our cake and eat it?
Well, experiments show multi-tasking reduces our ability to store and categorise information properly, leading to, among other things, anxiety, shorter attention spans, disorientation and reduced impulse control. New apps like Formal are emerging in response to this that allow people to queue smartphone notifications, receiving them in batches at particular times of the day, rather than in a continuous stream of interruptions.
A number of implications for brands flow from these areas.
- Get real about ‘fluid intelligence’
The challenge for marketers is how leverage these positive elements of our ‘new brains’ while bringing a deeper connection in a generation with shorter attention spans, questing for novelty and variety. Make fluid intelligence a route to deeper connection.
- Use the brain’s natural drug responsibly
Marketers need to be accomplices in our need to share but understand that without the positive re-enforcement of a like or response, the “hit” is lost. Is your content good enough to effect a response and thus serve share-addicts? Are you set up to know when your content is shared and follow up with relevant contact for those who shared it?
- Lack of nuance means attention to detail
As emotion becomes a more important driver in advertising effectiveness, marketers cannot assume digital natives will pick up important nuances in ads or videos. Brands and agencies will need to think about being more explicit, or take a more staged approach in priming younger audiences to be receptive to subtler cues. Key messages should still be clearly stated.
In the future, brands will need to rely more on sensory content to connect at a deeper level. Apple has been at the forefront of this for decades. Dr. Greenfield mentioned Snapple’s popping lid to denote freshness and Dyson’s low hum as a sound to suggest quality as two stand-out examples.
- Online/offline worlds will need more seamless integration
Brands need to really understand where they want consumers to have real experience versus digital experience. Of course, a brand can provide both, but a lot of care is needed to ensure these experiences complement each other at different times, rather than interrupting each other all at once. While the virtual and real world appear to be merging, neuroscience is telling us that some separation of scheduling is needed.