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Brain coral – Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson

What every marketer should know about the brain

Welcome back to Braintalk. A series of brain-related topics for marketers looking for business growth. By teaching you the basics you will get a better understanding of your customer’s brain. In the last two blogs, we talked about dopamine and serotonin. This time we will explain some basic facts about the brain’s structure and functions. Keep reading if you want to know what is happening inside your consumer’s head!

Mapping the mind

I remember attending my first psychobiology class. It was a collection of odd-sounding words and strange-looking drawings. I was confused. The brain is a complex organ. Scientists make discoveries every day and still we don’t know everything there is to know about it. In a simple and understandable way, we will show you how the brain was formed and how it functions. Don’t get discouraged by all the names. The point is to understand it is more than grey mass resembling a walnut. This walnut makes it possible to do everything we do. Talking, reading, thinking, running, dreaming. The brain is the headquarter of the body. It consists of many different parts and interrelated areas that work together as one system.

The Human Brain By Dr Johannes Sobotta [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The brain viewed from below, showing the cerebellum.
Let’s start off with the largest part of the human brain: the cerebrum.

The cerebrum

The cerebrum consists of a left and right part called hemispheres. The outer layers of the brain also belong to the cerebrum. These are the cortices, better known as the cerebral cortex. Last, there are also structures deeper inside the brain belonging to the cerebrum. With our cerebrum, we can control all our voluntary actions in the body.

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The cerebral cortex

Let us zoom in on the cerebral cortex. This is the part of the brain that handles the functions we use every day. It consists of grey matter; the outer grey and tangled looking layer of the brain. All the tangles and caverns are the work of evolution. It allows for a larger surface into a limited space, which results in greater diversity of functions. Remember we talked about neurons in our dopamine article? Most of them are located here. If we zoom in even further we arrive at the lobes.

Four Lobes

The cerebral cortex can be divided into four main layers—or lobes—that organise the connectivity of these neurons. They are:

  1. Frontal lobe: problem-solving (e.g. solving a puzzle)
  2. Parietal lobe: movement (e.g. moving our fingers)
  3. Temporal lobe: auditory perception (e.g. listening to music)
  4. Occipital lobe: visual perception (e.g. looking at a painting)

The exact functions of our brain areas are more complex than we described, but in this article, we will focus on what’s relevant to you.

The different structures are highly connected and work together closely. An example is listening to music. Vibration-sensitive neurons in your ear give a signal to a specialised area of the brain, which passes it to other areas to extract notes, instruments and voices. Eventually, all signals from different sensory systems are processed and fused together for you to consciously perceive the song.

Biggest brain

Humans are distinctive from other animals. We walk on two legs, talk, show a greater range of emotions, and are able to send rockets into space. There is also another crucial difference: we have big brains. Actually the biggest of all primates in proportion to our body. Our cortex is the source of our intelligence and resourcefulness. But what caused this? The answer is evolution.

Our brain has developed extremely fast compared to other primates. Scientists believe our brains grew to accommodate to a fast-changing environment, which enabled more advanced functions such as language, to evolve. The way we speak has changed enormously. From the time we lived in our caves to where we are now; using Emoji’s and learning a second or even third language.

When looking at the evolution of our brain, there are three phases—or—brains that have developed to where it is today:

  1. Reptilian brain
  2. Limbic system
  3. Neocortex

The reptilian brain

The oldest part of the brain is called the reptilian brain and handles the most basic functions related to survival and instinct. Breathing and heart rate are examples of functions regulated by this part.

The limbic system

The limbic system—also called the middle brain—is responsible for memories and emotion. A lot of mammals have a limbic system, meaning they hold memories and feel emotions.

The Neocortex

Remember we talked about the outer layer of the brain holding a lot of different functions? This layer is also called the neocortex, the latest addition to our brain. Most advanced functions like reasoning and abstract thought are located here. Simply put, the brain is built up beginning with the most simple functions and ending with the most complex ones.

Our instincts drive our decisions

When it comes to consumer behaviour, it might seem logical that our new brain—the neocortex—makes rational choices by looking at relevant information. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux argues that this is not true and that our brain signals flow from the old brain to the new. This means our decisions are way less rational than we think. Even though we have a new and more developed brain, our instinctive brain is still very active. Read more about this distinction and conflict in the consumer’s mind here.

We don't make rational choices when we're buying. We let our emotions decide. Click To Tweet

Wiring and connecting

We know that our brain has developed significantly over the last million years. But did you know you can change your own brain within a few weeks? This is because of a powerful ability called neuroplasticity.

Rewire your brain by meditating Photo by Jared Rice
Rewire your brain by meditating

It is possible for the brain to modify connections, make adaptations and rewire itself. People who recovered from brain injury are a perfect example of this. If damaged, the brain will look for new ways to function like it did before. Simply said, our brain can remap parts to work together to make something happen. If there’s damage somewhere, a different area can take over that function. So how can you improve your wiring and connections? In short: new experiences.

New Experiences

The key to this is environmental enrichment that relies on sensory and motor stimuli. The brain is like a muscle. If you want to improve a certain skill you can strengthen it by practising. Research shows that the more a person seeks out new experiences, the stronger the wiring in the respective brain areas becomes. Because the brain is so malleable, it is important to keep it fit. We used to think there was a critical period for brain development only during childhood, but neuroplasticity is something we can benefit from throughout all of our life. A few ways to stay fit are through meditation, physical exercise, and learning a new language. How do you keep your brain fit?

A sneak peek in your consumer’s head

So far we have discussed some brain areas- and functions, but how do we even know these things? There are a lot of different methods that enable us to analyse this. We can inspect the effects of brain damage or look at brain activity. Information about the brain is also becoming more and more valuable in marketing. It can give you insights that are typically not accessible through standard methods like questionnaires. As you probably already know, neuromarketing is the relatively new field that combines neuroscience with marketing. We discuss the ethics of neuromarketing here. Let’s look into one method to give you an idea of how brain research works.

We explained how evolution makes us smarter. We have evolved to the point where we invented a machine that tells us what brain area is active in which specific function. This is called functional Magnetic Response Imaging or fMRI. When you put someone in a scanner and let them perform a task you can see what area of the brain shows activation. With this information, you can conclude that the area (or areas) are involved with the execution of this task. This means the neurons in this area are communicating with other neurons (what is a neuron). How are we able to measure brain activity? We do this by detecting changes in blood flow in the brain. When our brain uses a certain area, blood flow to that specific area will increase. Simply said, if someone in a fMRI scanner moves his or her right arm, you can see what area is active, because blood flow to that area has increased.

Even though fMRI is not a frequently used tool in marketing, it is a promising tool able to reveal subconscious processes and aspects that are not visible by the naked eye. We have already introduced you to this combination with the classical Pepsi versus Coke experiment in this article about wanting versus liking. This experiment shows that brand positioning is based on emotions and memory; brain processes that can be researched with fMRI.

There’s still a lot of improvement to be made, but the first principles for neuromarketing are there. If we are lucky, we might experience a moment when we can peek inside a consumer’s head in an instance (this also sounds a bit scary, to be honest). Until then, we will inform you about the brain with the knowledge we have, give you neuromarketing tools and help you optimize your marketing strategy. If we made you curious, keep following our Braintalk series to learn more about the brain, optimizing your Facebook ads and other interesting developments!


Milou Odekerken

A passion for writing combined with fascination for the brain to give you the best neuromarketing content!

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