Live Wires and Getting Connected (Consumer Understanding #3)

Mar 12 2011

We are all ‘live wires’

How does the brain make connections?  Brain scans show areas of our brain ‘lighting up’ when we make decisions (although beware that more activity doesn’t make the decision more important).  But what is really going on?  There is a huge amount of activity (electrical and chemical) going on within our brains.  

That’s why neuroscientist Jose Delgado was able to stop a raging bull with the switch of a button on a remote control!  The bull was racing towards him, and with the flick of a switch, stopped and turned away.  Although neuromarketing is now more sophisticated than planting an electric signal in our brain, the principle is the same.  In order to change behaviour, marketers need to change the physical connections in consumers’ brains.

Constellations of connections

The building blocks of the brain are nerve cells (neurons), which are connected at junctions called synapses through which they communicate.  The connections are at the ends of wires (axons), through which pass small currents of electricity, which trigger the synapeses at the end of the wire to release neurotransmitters, in turn triggering the next cell along.

The reason for the brain’s complexity is the number of such neurons, and the vast number of interconnections between them.  Recent estimates put the number of neurons at 100 billion, and the number of connections at 100 trillion (greater than the number of particles in the known universe).

Dynamic connections

More importantly, these connections are constantly changing and evolving, showing our brain to be much more dynamic than previously thought (even when we get old and our memories start failing!).  Our brains are plastic and memory is dynamic, with the ability to constantly rewire if needed. Indeed nerve cells are also subject to natural selection, and the more we use them, the more likely they are to create new connections. All this activity in the brain is democratic and with no central command, and from this emerge our behviour and consciousness.

Learning new behaviours is about establishing new patterns among the synapses in our brains.  And, of course, the more we repeat these patterns, the more established the connections become, so behaviours can be more easily repeated in the future.  When we are young we have few established patterns and connections, and so forming behaviours is like skiing in fresh snow and we are ripe for learning.  The older we get, the more established the patterns in our brains become, and learning new things becomes more like skiing on old snow - we have to squeeze the new connections into the existing patterns.  Thus, establishing new patterns of behaviour takes time and repetition, in order to burn the new pattern into our brain.  Learning is made easier when the new pattern is as congruent as possible with existing patterns in the brain.

Getting connected

Any new stimulus (like a brand), creates a firing cell, and links are established between cells when they fire together, creating chain reactions (‘fire together, wire together’ is the neuroscientists chant!).  In this way the same stimulus produces the same thoughts, and importantly when stimulus creates multiple connections in the brain (ie when it has rich associations), there is a bigger chain reaction.  The downside of this is that when brands introduce new connections which are not linked to previous associations (ie when they change strategy or advertising), then it is more difficult for the brain to link the new connections to the existing patterns.  We will learn more about this when in the forthcoming articles on memory.

When we have a set idea of a brand (or a political viewpoint), it is very difficult to overwrite those connections.  Changing beliefs which have been built up over time (and hard wired) is expensive and time-consuming. The lessons for marketing are to respect consumers existing connections and make sure that new ideas can fit within existing patterns.  And long-term building of connections takes constant repetition with consistent imagery (ask Coca-Cola or Marlboro).

Astonishing and dynamic

The astonishing hypothesis from Frances Crick is that “your joys, sorrows, memories, ambitions, sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”.  Neuroscience shows how dynamic our brains are: a universe of cells making connections all the time.

This means that brands cannot simply photocopy themselves into our heads, but need to build real physical connections over time.  This is best achieved by respecting existing connections and by repeat, repeat, repeating the message consistently.

If you want to learn more, you can download details of our training workshop here.


The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul by Frances Crick (1995)

The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (2007)

Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain by Patrick Renvoise and Christophe Morin (2007)

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