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Part 1: The Reptilian Brain - Why Advertising Works

By Burkey Belser
May 15, 2008
Part 1: The Reptilian Brain - Why Advertising Works

You will learn:
1. The basic brain.
2. The basic brain + smell.
3. The basic brain + nose brain.
4. Fight or flight? Buy then reason?

Haven’t you ever wondered how advertising works? Why do we respond to its entreaties? What’s going on in our noodles that hurls us out the door to buy that new golf club or new pair of shoes?

For the next two months, we’re going to dig deep into the scientific case for “advertising” (let’s use the term broadly as management does to include ads, Web sites, brochures and other collateral). You need solid research to convince the left-brain rational minds that what you do matters! Does advertising work? With confidence, a resounding “yes!” How? Let’s see.

Because advances in brain imaging allow us to map the brain in action, we now know infinitely more about how the brain works than we did only 25 years ago.

Much of the initial portion of this report comes from Daniel Goleman’s summary of recent research in the most recent edition of Emotional Intelligence. We’ll bet you have this book on your bookshelf but perhaps—just as certainly—never read past page 30. In this “Cliff Notes” version, we’ll outline the core information about how the brain works, then we’ll link it up to “advertising” (branding, advertising and marketing communications).

In developing this report, however, we read four books and over 40 articles from scientific journals. We’ve made every effort to render the report in plain English. If you wish to read our sources yourself, please see the appendix at the end of this article.

THE REPTILIAN BRAIN: HOW IT ALL STARTED

We see, in the development of the fetus in utero, a perfect re-creation of the brain’s evolutionary course. That evolution, repeated in the development of every newborn baby, is remarkably revealing.

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The basic brain

The most basic part of the brain is the brain stem. It is primitive; it cannot think or learn. It regulates functions in the body—reactions that ensure our survival. The brain stem makes certain the physical body hums along. We call the functions regulated here “instinctual.” In the Reptilian Age of dinosaurs, this root brain owned the day.

The basic brain+1

Over time a layer of olfactory cells overlaid this basic brain. And it’s a good thing, too. Our expanded sense of smell improved our chances of survival. This first additional layer of cells allowed the animal to learn to discriminate between edible or toxic, prey or predator. Another layer of cells urged the animal to make decisions about what to eat or not to eat, whether to run or not to run. We’re not talking about creating poetry here. It’s “fight” or “flight.” What you will learn, however, is that in spite of the size of your noggin, your first reaction to things takes place right here in the reptilian brain.

The basic brain+2

Gradually, the “olfactory brain” became the inner core of yet another overlay. This new growth grew in a ring around the brain stem and is called the limbic system from the Latin limbus for “ring.” As it evolved, learning and memory were refined. Food was no longer simply safe or toxic but good or bad. This “nose brain,” as it’s sometimes called, became the rudimentary basis of the neocortex, the ultimate thinking brain.

The limbic system is the source of pleasure and sexual desire. As Goleman says, “when you are head over heels in love, you are in the grip of the limbic system.” Perhaps this explains why the ancient Chinese treated lovers’ infatuation as a disease to be cured.

The human brain is three times as large as the brain of our nearest primate relative. That growth is relatively recent in evolutionary terms and consists in large measure of the neocortex that wraps the limbic system. It is the “thinking brain” that allows us to strategize, engage in long-term planning, create art.

The neocortex is the sea of thought, comprehension, art and imagination. It is the neocortex that adds subtlety and nuance to emotional life. Pleasure and sexual desire, for example, come from the limbic system. But the neocortex gives us maternal affection. That protective bond between parent and child permits the long childhood of homo sapiens, for example.

The autonomic response to danger comes from the limbic system (fight/flight), but the ability to call 911 comes from the neocortex.

So that’s the basic setup of your brain. Now let’s see what this means for you in daily life.

TWO BRAINS, TWO BRAINS, TWO BRAINS IN ONE!

Because the primitive reptilian brain is so closely related to instinctual, basic functions, it can be said to be one brain. Goleman and others call it the emotional brain. The neocortex with its myriad interconnections that allow such sophistication of thought can be said to be another brain—the rational brain. Ironically, because we are still (sorry, Mom) animals, the limbic system can quickly take over the neocortex. Why? Because danger requires a high-speed response more than considered deliberation. The limbic system works with instinctual, autonomic speed—the time it takes you to become frightened, angry, indignant or delighted. The neocortex is more akin to a slow-loading Web page, cranking through the calculations before the display appears. For sheer survival, there’s no contest. You want your limbic brain in charge.

There’s more to learn about brain structure, but let’s pause here to take stock of what we have learned:

1. The primitive brain is the seat of all passion, of autonomic reflex, of emotions. (In fact, the word “emotion” derives from the Latin word emovere,which means “to move away.”) It acts infinitely more quickly than thought and can, as we all know, hijack the rational mind entirely through anger, fear or infatuation (often called “love”). It doesn’t matter whether you are “in touch” with your emotions or conscious of their grip on you. Emotions don’t ask for permission to exist. And they very often don’t listen to reason. So before you “think” (and, therefore, “believe”) you know why you do what you do, read on.

2. The rational mind of the neocortex gives us beautifully reasoned briefs and complex business strategy leading to the illusion that our rational mind is in complete control of our decisions. But the neocortex, as scientific studies prove again and again, ultimately does not make decisions for us. The limbic system is in charge of that function. Decisions are predominately emotional because the path to almost every decision is never clear-cut. There is almost never a single right answer. Ultimately, it is the reptilian brain that decides what we will “move toward” or “move away from” (remember “emotion”)—what we will buy and what we will reject.

To learn more about Greenfield/Belser and our work, call our marketing team at (202) 775-0333.

Appendix

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