To be Franks...

Why do you have to "put your two cents in"...but it's only a "penny for your thoughts"? Where's that extra penny going to?

It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it


Someone recently asked me why I chose to study Cognitive Neuroscience if ‘all I wanted to do was work in media’. Dumbfounded and bemused firstly at this person’s attempt to belittle an industry contributing over £100bn to the UK economy last year and secondly, because – whilst the title “cognitive neuroscience” is usually met with a look of terror and bewilderment, isn’t it obvious? People (and their brains) are fascinating.

In recent years, our understanding of people; their decision making, emotions, what drives certain behaviours has been sharpened with the use of scientific tools. We are now able to look deeper, navigating the depths of the subconscious brain in order to illuminate surprising human truths. However when it comes to brand planning, the art of a brand to communicate a message to its audience, a trick is being missed in using these truths to communicate with the highly sought after and captive audience. Instead, too much focus is placed on the explicit construction of a brand - the correct image, voice, mask, twitter hashtag, rather than how they are implicitly communicating with their audience.

We can understand ‘Implicit communication’ most simply as a brand’s ‘body language’, reflecting not what they say but what they do and the meaning behind what it is that they do. Whilst big loud brands may capture our short-lived (and nowadays partially attended, “dual screen anyone?”) attention, it is actually these implicit signals that are often stored subconsciously by you and I which greatly affect our feelings toward a brand and subsequently influence how we go about interacting with it[1] and passing it onto our peers. In a world where the use of personalised media is frequently interchangeable with social life, these implicit messages are vital for a brands’ voice to set itself apart from the noise and stay present and relevant.

Increasingly, perhaps due to a backlash against more and more literature on advertising’s ability to persuade, brainwash and instil a hungry need for what-ever-it-is-they’re-selling, we are a sceptical bunch when it comes to advertising. Questions of “3rd party data immorality” and a “big brother-esque” portrayal of media mean that we are quick to jump to the defence over their apparent “effect” on us. For this reason, the unintended, unscripted unconscious signalling by a brand is far more powerful than its planned construction because they appear more honest[2]. But why? Very broadly, we have 2 systems with which we operate under – system 2 (slow, analytical, effortful, rational, and conscious) and system 1 (unconscious, implicit, rapid, and emotional). Traditionally, advertising and marketing are firmly rooted in appealing to our rational system 2 by delivering highly persuasive, sales-driven and ‘memorable’ messaging. Whilst more recent work in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics reveal that we are actually far more driven by our emotional system 1 processes, these learnings need to be applied to brand planning in a more visible, tangible way. Associations, heuristics and a brand’s culture are more important to us than originally thought[3].

Signalling theory[4] suggests that for brands to implicitly communicate in a successful way, they have to appear unplanned, unscripted and costly – a notion that goes against a lot of brand planning. For example, Waitrose’ Community Matters green token scheme, allowing shoppers to choose which the money is donated as well as see Waitrose as an organisation who is interested and passionate about the local community. This suggests that a lot of brands have incorrectly identified what “engagement” really means – rather than clicking on that infamous “like” button or that oh-so-committed “retweet”, according to signal theory, these kinds of explicit short-lived brand promoting campaigns are exactly that – short-lived in our affections and easily replicable in our loyalty.

So, should brands be spending less money on communicating and more on visible waste? I think we can all agree that some of the best ads are the ones that don’t look like ‘ads’ but make us think, feel, look at something in a different light. These kinds of communication are far more powerful forms of a brand’s implicit communication. Actions, not words? Not exactly, successful brands will ensure that their actions reflect their words and vice versa. They embed the product into culture, a culture than both surrounds and emulate the product; they must be synonymous. An example of poor synergy between explicit messaging and implicit signals is Thornton’s – a brand who markets itself as luxury yet stinks of promotion, wide distribution and 3for1 quick-sales. In contrast, by limiting distribution, delivering iconic products at a premium price, Hotel Chocolate is sending out strong implicit signals embodying what the brand stands for – a high quality, elegant, luxurious experience.

Marketers and brand planners should step away from forcing marketing campaigns and objectives (“drive engagement” should probably be banned from briefs unless that “e” is realistically defined, and even so – can you “define” the kind of successful, subconscious level 1 engagement explained above?). Instead, brands should define what it is they stand for and let it resonate throughout every decision and action the brand makes. Sometimes, it’s not WHAT you say, it’s the way you said it…

[1]  Damasio, A. (2006) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason And The Human Brain.

[2] Pentland, A. (2008) Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World.

[3] Yakob, F. (2012) Choose The Future, Admap. Shortlisted, Admap Prize 2012.

[4] Connelly, B. L., Certo, S. T., Ireland R. D., Reutzel, C. R. (2012) Signaling Theory: A Review and Assessment

You’d be a psycho not to pass this test…


A subject of interest that recently ignited my curiosity is that of the Psychopath. OK perhaps I shouldn’t have watched Channel 4’s recent air of Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath on a Friday night, but I did. The term “psychopath” often brings to mind images of sadistically violent individuals such as Ted Bundy or the fictional character or Dr. Hannibal Lecter from the famous "The Silence of the Lambs". However, whilst such emotionless and morally deprived individuals are confronted by abhorrence and a distinct separation from the normal personality spectrum, the sobering issue remains that the defining characteristic of a psychopath shelter a much broader spectrum of individual personality traits than you would think.

What is a psychopath? This is the question occupying my latest read, “The Psychopath Test” in which the distinctive self-deprecating reporting style of Jon Ronson invites the reader on a ‘journey through the madness industry’. Alongside a comical yet often unsettling narrative, Ronson’s provocatively investigates questions such as “How are psychopaths diagnosed?” and “What is the difference between psychopaths who are institutionalised and the psychopaths artfully succeeding at the top of institutions (business, entertainment and politics)?”

Ronson systematically probes the history of psychopathic diagnosis and treatment, through a series of surreal and off the cuff interviews and letters. Namely, he interviews the psychologist behind the definitive psychopathy checklist, Robert D. Hare, before methodically applying the checklist factors to various people he meets (as well as himself throughout): the mass murders, the top businessman with ruthless ambition and a love for firing people, the MI5 agency-turned-conspiracy theorist. Through such, Ronson highlights the transparency with which these same traits that label some as psychopaths are those that are encouraged in the people judged as the “most successful”. With that in mind, the eerie notion is proposed, is society run by individuals with varying levels of psychopathic tendencies?

In the book, Ronson meets and interviews a man named “Tony” who feigned madness by plagiarising Dennis Hopper in the film, “Blue Velvet” and imitating the work of Ted Bundy, to escape a prison sentence. In reality, it appears it is a lot easier to prove insanity than it is to convince someone you are sane, since this Tony was unable, no matter how he behaved, to escape the condemning walls of both the Psychiatric classification system and its institution, Broadmoor. Echoing the dealings of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, it is slightly unnerving that it seems that as a society, we are keen to detect anomalies in individuals and quick to classify varying personality traits as incurable personality disorders. Perhaps, this is why the number of disorders classified in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM) increased from 106 in 1952 to 297 in 1994’s edition… Psychopaths asides, this opens a bigger question; Are we inaccurately classifying tidiness as OCD; listening to our “inner goddesses” (see 50 shades of grey) as being a schizophrenic, and having a small crush on Brad Pitt as Celebriphilia?

In the end, Ronson argues that both Hare’s psychopath check-list and the DSM-IV criteria are hazardous weapons. If more and more disorders become fractionated and fine-tuned, it will soon be the case that almost any score on any test might be attributed to one disorder or another, prescribing patients a Catch-22 situation; drug companies the capacity to thrive and our children, alongside being diagnosed with ADHD (because that last candy bar sent them nuts), receiving books like “My Bipolar, Roller Coaster, Feelings Book” in their stockings at Christmas…

Are we all becoming hypochondriacs? Oh wait, that is another classifiable disorder. The question “Where do we draw the line?” is the one we are left asking at the end of Ronson’s often neurotic self-diagnosing journey, between the fragile balancing act between “sanity” and “madness”. Unearthing precarious truths and provoking us to question how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges, “The Psychopath Test” proves to be a compelling read.

Playing with fire

These pieces of work are the creations of artist, Steven Spazuk, and are all made from ash. He does this by quite literally, setting his canvas on fire. 

Exposing a canvas to fire, and controlling the imprint of soot that is left behind on it’s surface is the technique Spazuk has adopted, an expertise in which has led him to get such fine detailed work as seen above. 

Though he creates much smaller pieces of art, and plays with the smoky after effect almost reflecting movement in his work, I am most enthralled by his larger more detailed work, made from hundreds of smaller pieces, each a consequence of gentle and meticulous etching of the residual burnt ash to reveal fine and minute details. Superb, and reminiscent of Chuck Close's work (see below) which I am a massive fan of. 


VW: The Dog strikes back…

Following on from a previous post declaring Volkswagen’s “The Force” as one of my favourite adverts of last year, I thought it only appropriate to give a little update, offering you their latest creation for you viewing pleasure.

Whilst it may not quite match the creative and comic genius of its perfectly pitched predecessor, this ad successfully serves to keep VW right at the heart of the family-centred stage it has undoubtedly placed itself.

Plucking at the heartstrings, the ad tells the tale of a mutt called “Bolt”, who sets himself the mission of losing weight so that he is able to keep up with the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle. Reminiscent of those fad diet adverts, this “biggest loser” for doggies gets us chuckling when you watch poor Bolt examining the bulges of his pooch physique in the mirror, before deciding enough is enough. Donning exercise balls and a few swims, Bolt is slimmer in no time and launches himself through that dog flap and runs alongside VW’s new toy.

But what about the unsuspecting twist at the end? Did I like the surprise appearance of the intergalactic superstar? I’m not so sure it worked. It being made from the same director and editor as “The Force”, I felt it was perhaps a little “try hard” for my liking, and not wholly necessary. However, all in all, good show from Lance Acord (director) and Jim Haygood (editor).

"Art", is it in the brain of the beholder?

The next instalment of Cain’s “what makes a masterpiece” (Channel 4, 21th Jan 2012) leads us in a systematic deconstruction of the visual arts, however we are ultimately left asking the same fundamental questions plaguing us at the beginning of the hour, such as “can science pass judgement on something that is so fundamentally ‘non-scientific’? And if so, will it do art any favours?

Art has been seen to “move” us in a number of ways since the beginning of time, but just how literally can we take such a comment? Let loose in the Tate gallery, Harry Witchel (Brighton and sussex medical school) demonstrates how scientific in ‘situ’ receptor testing can be used to track eye movements around a painting as well as monitoring changes in the audience’s breathing, sweating and heart rate in order to gain an insight into what one responds to when looking at art, often without being consciously aware of it. For instance, he found that despite Damien Hurst being acclaimed as a ‘badboy’ in contemporary art, it appears that his paintings in fact elicited the weakest emotional and arousal responses, in comparison to say a Francis Bacon piece, which clearly has lost none of its power. So, is it that science appears to support the notion that what makes us enjoy a certain piece of art over another, relies upon ‘gut feeling’, namely our physiological response to it..?

Such conceptual artists such as James Turrell (see below) seem to have tapped into this aspect of neuro-aesthetics in his art that portrays a wash of light, supposedly inspired by “the beauty inside the brain”. He cleverly argues that rather than beauty of a piece of art being in the eye of the beholder, perhaps it is in fact in the brain of the beholder.


Following on from this perspective, the founding father of Neuro-aesthetics, Professor Semir Zeki (University of College London) proposes a formula for beauty, understood by looking directly into the nooks and crannies of our grey matter.  Asking Cain to rate a series of well-known works of art on a likert scale ranging from “ugly” to “beautiful”, whilst under the examination of fMRI, Zeki is able to isolate an area heavily activated, called the medial orbital cortex which is highly activated in response to the likes of Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (which for the majority gains a rating rocketing towards the u.g.l.y spectrum, but for Cain: quite the opposite). It seems that whilst we may say we like a certain piece of art, our brain would care to disagree, possibly reflecting a cultural pressure to feel we must enjoy certain pieces, when in fact, we’re completely un-stimulated by it.


For instance, whilst Cain rated the Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘St. John the baptist’ (see above), historically quoted as being one of the greatest pieces of art from one of our greatest artists of all time, as ‘beautiful’, it failed to elicit an activation to back it up. So, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that our conscious love of art is an artefact of culture, rather than a “gut instinct”? Zeki defines “beauty” as being “the experience that correlated with the activity in the occipital frontal cortex at any given time for any given subject”. Is this too scientific and cold to define our notion of ‘beauty’, or is it realistic, and truthful as opposed to what our conscious understanding of art might define it as being?

Visual neuroscientist, Professor Steven Dakin (University College London) takes us back to basics: what do our eyes actually do? Easy answer, see, right? Wrong, that’s only half of the story. In fact, our brain plays a huge role in constructing the visual world. Take a look at this image below:


All that differs between the left and the right image is a few black squares, however it challenges our brain into “filling in the gaps” and deducing that rather than two vertical and two horizontal lines moving up and down and left and right, it is in fact a square moving in circles (sorry about the lack of motion in this static image, but you get the idea).

 It is these kinds of visual illusion concepts that artists such as Bridgett Riley (see below) use in a bid to consciously exploit the way our brains process lines, format and contrast.


Through such, she has been seen to generate such evocative and illusive geometric displays that send our visual system into ecstasy, since it is precisely this ‘violation of our senses’ that causes such excitability when we look at a piece of art, enabling us to start asking questions about your own perception of what is in front of you.


So, are artists such as those in the op-art movement in the 60s (see above), perhaps doing their own scientific experiments with their audience, through their work? The artist takes visual information and processes it, isn’t this what a scientist does?  Perhaps there isn’t so much different between art and science after all.

Perhaps where this comparison is clearest is in the fact that, whilst Leonardo Da Vinci is best known for his contribution to art, he was also a scientist. It is, for instance, most interesting when we look the long discussed enigmatic smile seen in his Mona Lisa. Was it the missing eyebrows or the soft painting technique that lies behind that most-puzzling smile?


Neuro-biologist, Professor Margret Livingstone (Harvard University) argues that science has the key to unlocking this painting’s secret. Quite simply, it lies in the difference between our central vision, which is an expert at seeing minute detail, and our peripheral vision which is bad at picking up detail (consult you’re a level biology notes here and it’s all really down to those pesky rods and cones). So, when one looks at her mouth, you don’t appear to be aware of any such notion of a smile, however that all changes when our focus is on her eyes. This dynamic quality to the image might explain why we’re never able to catch that smile…


Another example comes from Diego Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas’, one of the most influential paintings in western art; it’s effectiveness ultimately appears to rest on its ability to cash in on our perception of depth. The eye is drawn to the contrast at the window in the right back door of the image, which, when dulled down, so too is our eye’s ability to be drawn to half of the painting’s content.

Ok, maybe we are limiting ourselves if we choose to reduce our experiences of art to a purely scientific pathway. However, one final postulation: How does art work cross-culturally? Briefly reconstructing an old experiment whereby people are asked which scenic image they prefer (from the tropical rainforests to images of the Sahara desert – think the default backgrounds that often come with a new laptop), the majority always pick the African Savannah picture. Why?  Because we like a bit of blue sky? Don’t laugh too quickly.

In a bid to determine what each nationality’s majority want to see in a painting, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid began‘The Most Wanted Paintings’ project (see here also). Through the conduction of a vast survey that extended over dozens of countries, including France, Russia, China, Kenya, Iceland and Turkey, they were able to isolate which aspects of a painting constitute a “good” painting. The results of which were then used to create each country’s ideal or ‘democratic’ painting. What was so striking is the extraordinary cross-culture similarity. All prioritised landscape; a historical figure of some sort of the nation’s flag; animals; people and most vividly: BLUE landscape. Yup, and you thought you were original in having blue as your favourite colour. You and have the population. Oh, one exception though, France was said to ask for a naked woman or two in their ‘ideal’ painting. I’ll leave that one with you.


Recent experiments indicate that a 4th blue light receptor exists and thus maybe our gravitation towards the blue stuff therefore derives from the fact that it has its very own specialised photoreceptor. That explains why everyone rates Turner’s blue painting over its grey, orange and green alternatives.


Nice one Turner.

Adopting such basic scientific principles as these forces us to probe the question: have artists always intuited what science is now teaching us?


"Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable"

Whilst Leonard Berstein and many others (such as John Dewey) might have been right, it appears that new questions being asked of neuroscientists are beginning to shed light upon the mystery that is music.

 Matthew Cain, Channel 4’s culture editor invites us to question if, why and how music makes our hearts skip a beat, and why certain music, such as one of the most electric performances of Radio gaga by Freddie Mercury and Queen (Live Aid, 1985) sparked an audience of 72,000 to clap, sing and sway in a rhythmic and almost spiritual unison?

Employing the knowledge of Mike McCready, a music analyst from New York who, using some intriguingly sophisticated software called “HitSongScience” and a number of complex algorithms, is able to measure the underlying patterns of music.  By examining a number of failsafe ingredients (the correct melody, harmony, beat, tempo and pitch), McCready argues that he is able to isolate what he calls “hit clusters” that reflect a song’s combination of pitch, tempo and chord progression, such that the likes of Beethoven and U2 can be found hanging out in the same cluster. Arguing that the music industry is fairly inaccurate in its prediction of which song on an album might make it and which will fall flat as a, well a…flat note, he argues that employing a scientific formula allows him to create the ‘pier de la resistance’: the next chart topper, be it “Rockstar” or indeed Aqua ‘Barbie Girl’

Musicologist, Dr Ian Cross (University of Cambridge) argues that the reason behind why music affects us so deeply lies in the rhythm.  Donning an empty club, an overhead camera, a number of green and blue head lights, 2 different music channels and a group of obliging individuals up for a dance, Dr Cross had all the essential components of a curious experiment, where the power of rhythm revealed itself. By monitoring the movements of these individuals whilst listening to 2 different streams of music (pop vs. reggae) through their headphones (think silent disco), Dr. Cross was able to observe how people were instinctively drawn toward those who are listening to the same music. Termed “entrainment”, it seems that rhythm stimulates an energy that physically attracts people to dance where the rhythm is the same, as opposed to being physically repelled by those who are listening to different music. So, music does really appear to allow people to relate to one another without the confines of language…? Dance moves aside, music also has a powerful effect on how we relate to one another emotionally. Dr. Cross then asked participants to complete a questionnaire probing questions such as, “Was individual X wearing a badge on their sash?” to which it was found that people were more aware of peripheral cues such as the colour of a sash or shirt of another who was listening to the same music, as opposed to failing to pick up on these cues if the person was listening to different music to us.

Whilst we know music activates the limbic system rather profusely, triggering such neuro-chemicals such as the pleasure hormone oxytocin (involved in bonding and sexual attraction), Psychologist Lawrence Parsons (University of Sheffield) is currently undertaking some pioneering EMG research looking at the extent of music’s visceral effects by examining the listener’s HR, breathing rate, sweating and facial temperature. He found that listening to happy music results in a pleasing regular emotional response (such as a rhythmic breathing pattern and a rise in facial temperature). Listening to sad music, the most complex emotion of all, was also seen to elicit a similar response; a kind of peaceful meditative state. However, in contract, listening to Russian thrash metal music was seen to directly cause anxiety and an adrenaline rush (facial temperature decreased by 2 degrees, facial muscles tightened and breathing became erratic) such that Cain’s heart quite literally was seen to “skip a beat”.

Professor Daniel Levitin, (McGull University) discusses the long-standing idea that our music processing relies on a series of expectations which can either be satisfied or violated, such that a combination of tension and release lies at the heart of music’s power. This sense of “Release” experienced when the next note fulfils our expectation, he argues, reflects a neurological rush of dopamine, which results in a sense of pleasure. In this way, it appears that our emotional response to music can be reduced to particular patterns of neural firing accompanied by particular neuro-chemical signal secretions that cause us to have these feelings that seem ineffable.

Such an idea is at the heart of the innovative EEG work currently being done at Goldsmith’s University by Marcus Pearce. In a bid to explain our deep emotional connection with music, has conducted experiments whereby predictable notes are presented to individuals followed by random unpredictable notes. Such a ‘violation of expectation’ is found to activate neurons in the frontal cortex (such as Broadmann’s area 47), such that it appears that our brain anticipates the future based on what has already happened. Our bodies are put in a state of high alter when it hears something unexpected, which unsurprisingly increases the levels of arousal and tension. Whilst native, a degree of tension and surprise is pleasurable, and is often used in music, referred to as “false endings” or “suspended chords”. An example of this is the song, “somewhere over the rainbow”, whose beginning notes get us sitting up in our seats to pay attentions, since it is unusual; for a song to rise or fall by more than 4 or 5 notes in a single step. Go on, have a listen.

An area which captivates me, I could talk for pages about how our brain is thought to process music, and whether this process can be compared to that of language. However, it’s late, and I should probably leave that for my dissertation…


The Gems: 5 of best adverts from 2011 

Whilst the advertising industry frantically sprints off in all directions in a hyperactive bid to clock face time with their increasingly technically and socially saturated consumers (a dilemma faced by many social influencers whereby they must penetrate the barrier of beyond ‘continuous partial attention” from their audience). Facebook apps, QR codes on wine bottles and billboards and banana peels, sponsored tweets, etc. – whilst different social platforms will come and go, the place of a good creative idea will never be lost.

And so, even if TV advertising might appear to be waning in comparison to internet driven social media, there have been some superb creative pieces this year, which invariably reflect the ups and downs of our economy.

In no particular order (I’m indecisive like that), these are 5 of my favourites from 2011:

1) Google “Dear Sophie”

Created by a company that undoubtedly is overflowing with raw nerd power, we see a different side to Google here that undoubtedly comforts us whilst the company slowly takes over the world. “Dear Sophie” is a beautifully constructed montage (coupled with a perfectly chosen piano accompaniment) that takes the audience through an evocative display of photos and videos from the first 6 months of this little girls life which has been organised meticulously by her father with the help of Google’s interactive scrapbook.

“I’ve been writing you since you were born,” reads an e-mail to the little girl from her father. “I can’t wait to share these with you some day.” Adorable - Nice job Google. 

2)Volkswagen Passat “The Force”

Boasting a focused direction, colourful editing and brilliantly casting, this 60 second advert hits the nail on the head with its crafty humour and absence of dialogue.

The child’s astonishment is just excellent when The Force successfully achieves the desired effect on his dad’s new Passat, and seems slightly reminiscent of the old fairy liquid ads with the imaginative little girl who wants the bottle to make that week’s latest creation on a popular television programme. Viewers adored this, passing the video along to their friends and pushing the shot to almost 45 million on YouTube alone.

3) Nissan Leaf “Gas Powered Everything”

With the evocative strapline, “Innovation for the planet”, this 60 second advert breaks new ground in that it spectacularly prompts us to confront our surroundings with fresh eyes. Shots of people going through the motions of their usual mundane life using devices that are at once familiar (an alarm clock, a mobile phone, a hair dryer and a laptop) that leads to the observation they run on internal combustion engines, emitting damaging exhaust clouds. At this point, Robert Downey Jr (great choice) pipes up asking the question, “What is everything ran on gas?” before cutting to a bright and problem solving shot of Nissan’s new electric car, accompanied by Downey Jr’s concluding remark, “Then again, what if everything didn’t?”  The strategy is focused and clever and its execution is smooth, which isn’t always easy when it comes to climate focused adverts.

4) British Airways “To Fly. To Serve”

Reminiscent of “The end of the plain plane” in 1965 (by Mary Wells, Alexander Girard and Emilio Pucci), I love this advert for the sole reason that it successfully puts the romance back into flying. In the style of a history lesson, this 90 second advert gently reminds us of the heritage of British Airways and what it has achieved and seen in its time, up to the present day, guided by the faintly poetic dulcet tones of the voiceover. From shots of the First World War-era pioneers to soared the sky, “their safety system of brain, and heart”; to the pilots of the 1920s and 1930s; right to today’s flyer who “skimmed the edge of space, the edge of heaven and the edge of dreams”. Such emotive language resonates with its audience who fantasise about the future’s possibilities, whilst undeniably reinstating a sense of pride at being British.

5) John Lewis “Christmas Advert 2011”

There was no way that this bad boy was not getting a mention. This retailer is setting itself apart as an expert at sentimental hokum, especially at Christmas time. Criticised for its excessive use of emotional blackmail which sparked a wider observation that it appears that advertising has taken on a different persona: life documentation (it speaks out and conjures up and delivers everyday occurrences as “events” (see Charles Brooker’s review about this advert for fuller picture of the controversy it created) 

Setting a cover of the song, Please Please Please let me get what I want by Slow Moving Millie, this unexpected tale does indeed pull at the heartstrings. Love it or hate it, this advert made quite a splash this Christmas. Isn’t that the point? 

Over & Out 2011, I wonder what new territory 2012’s advertising campaigns will stumble upon?

Tomato Tomahto, Neuroscience Neuroart?


Can science reduce the art of storytelling to a formula?

 Michelangelo's Creation of Adam From Paluzzi et al., Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2007

Matthew Cain begins sparks off his exploration into whether there is a place for science in the art world, in his evocative new series of “What makes a Masterpiece?” (Aired 9pm on More4, 7Th Jan 2012)

The question of whether science can in fact reduce the art of storytelling to a formula that can be reproduced successfully is one that appears to defy every ‘ying and yang’ contrast we have grown up believing. Like music notes to a musician, can scientifically sound principles be taught to artists?

The hour long episode examines the innate appeal of storytelling as a means of uniting the reader and listener in a purely humanistic type of communication. Thought-provoking fMRI work by neuroscientist, Professor Christian Keysers has revealed that when engaged in a story, both the storyteller and the listener’s brains fire in an identical pattern of neurological activity, referred to as “Neural Coupling”. So, perhaps the phrase “on the same brain wave” is not that far off.

Unique to humans, the act of storytelling seems to unite us and perhaps explains the potency of literature, particularly fiction which, rather than merely doting on a whimsical need to escape reality, may have a huge social influence. So what is it about stories that we find so compelling? Creative writing instructor, Robert McKee argues that story telling is a science, and frequently offers ‘story seminars’, attracting an abundance of novelists seeking the “perfect set of rules” against which to write. Is there such a blueprint for success? McKee undoubtedly argues “yes”, explaining that “Life itself does not tell us how to live”, but stories are metaphors for life. “The classical design of a story is branded on the human mind, such that stories can be argued as shaping our reality. From childhood, stories are how we remember key details, where we draw parallels with our own life, and from which we anticipate and invariably shape our reality. Storytelling is innate.

So, is it the case that story telling isn’t in fact a matter of artistic craftsmanship, but a matter of following a set of failsafe principles?

According to Christopher Booker (author “The seven basic plots”), it is exactly that. Whilst it is a long standing cliché that there are only really a handful of basic plots in the entire canon of western literature, he has identified and analysed a number of strict principles which he claims every successful story ever written follows. Through such a factor analysis approach, he suggests that there is a universal appeal of storytelling that works across different cultures. The proposed 7 are:

1)      Overcoming the Monster

2)      Rags to Riches

3)      The Quest

4)      Voyage and Return

5)      Comedy

6)      Tragedy

7)      Rebirth

What makes these seven principles so effective is that each one of them taps into a deep seated fear that each of us has. Through behavioural paradigms examining children’s attachment to particular objects, Professor Bruce Hood (University of Bristol) has investigated one of these: overcoming the monster. In his experiments, children were offered a duplicate of one of their possessions (e.g. a loved toy) to which they always rejected, without fail, in the presence of the original. From such insight, Hood explains the term “essentialism” which is the idea that there is this internal property that makes something unique and irreplaceable to us, a understanding of which we all share. The notion of violating the key essence of this internal property conjures up a disturbance in us as humans that can perhaps account for why we are repulsed by the “monster” character used in stories and films. The effectiveness of monsters (e.g. a vampire) in a plot relies on the power of this deep seated notion:  a violation of the integrity of human beings.

Surely the biggest impact here would be seen in films, where the audience is pulled right into the story. Keyers argues that the effectiveness of films relies on the fact that we, as humans, are hardwired to empathise with others. Comparing the neural activity in individuals who experience pain directly to that elicited when they witness others being hurt, it is found that identical areas are activated. Such a phenomenon is referred to as “body empathy” and occurs when mirror neurons in the somatosensory cortex are activated by watching someone being hurt that allows us to “feel” hurt. Such findings advocate a physical neurological basis of film watching, and suggest that when we watch a film, in a sense, we “live” with the people in the film. 

Neuroscientist, Darren Bridger (Director of Lab operations at Neurofocus) has led pioneering research using EEG to observe and analysis the subconscious reactions to films. By placing EEG caps on a large number of people in a cinema, he is able to evaluate the overall effectiveness ratings by looking at 3 measures: Attention levels, Emotional engagement and Memory activation (whether participants are pulling on past memories or forming new ones). Examining 3 films: Jaws (1975); The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Love Actually (2003), Bridger and his colleagues are able to listen to the language of the brain to discern what is effective and what is not. Notably, albeit 36 years old, Jaws was found to have the most effective impact (scoring 6.5/10 to Matt Damon’s 5.5/10 performance) on our arguably ‘special effects hungry’ modern day audience, due to it tapping into our primal fears of the dark, wild animals and being confined to small spaces.

So, is neuroscience another tool in film producer’s toolbox? Are we all subject to the same pattern of analysis or is there variation in how we respond?

Professor Rafal Ohme (polish academy of sciences) used EEG to compare the brain’s responses in men and women whilst watching a number of film clips, such as James Bond (Daniel Craig version). Looking at positive, negative and “loss of interest” activity, it is apparent that there are distinct neural differences between the sexes that indeed reflect the often comically generalised “women are from venus and men are from mars” type sociologist arguments. Men don’t seem to care much for watching witty conversations between characters compared to women who are totally engaged in this activity. Men appear to be activated be watching action such as an iconic scene where Daniel Craig engages in the physical act of temporarily sucking his love interest’s finger in a bid to console her after she had witnessed someone being shot. In response to this brief happening, women are positively activated for a second and lose interest; however men are activated for a great deal longer suggesting that they are more interested in action. Similarly, (whilst I mustn’t give in to generalisations), men are shown to empathise less than women which perhaps might explain their love of action in films compared to women, since they are able to “turn off” the emotional ties with the character in order to enjoy the violence more objectively than women.

Interestingly, when the camera zooms out and the toilet is in the set for a brief few milliseconds, women’s negative activity soars sky high whereas men’s brains haven’t even registered its presence. However, if asked directly, women have no conscious awareness of it even being there or being bothered by it….this really illustrates the fact that we only use 15% of our mental operation, whilst 85% of such is reserved for unconscious thought.

It appears by this point, that science and art can work hand in hand to achieve the most effective film experience. Such ‘neuromarketing’ is currently being employed by Hollywood films and advertising. Through examining the activation of the Amygdala (the primal fear centre located in the limbic system of the brain), Philip Carlsen (MindSign Neuromarketing in San Francisco) has and continues to use neuroscience to decipher which parts of a film are most feared by individuals, which are often not what producers expect. For instance, slow tension building moments elicit a far higher Amygdala response than those perhaps more memorable “seat launching” moments.

The significance of this is that using such insightful neuro-data can invariably intensify the film experience. Is this something to be embraced? Many might see this as manipulation or a violation of privacy and feel uncomfortable at the thought that others might know our mind better than we do ourselves.  To these people, I share Phillip Carlsen’s view in replying with the question; don’t we go to the cinema to be manipulated?

Where is becomes interesting is in advertising. Putting Vance Packard’s “Hidden Persuaders” to one side for a moment, the increasingly apparent “marriage” between the communications world and neuroscience is one that is not without its disputes, however currently occupies a very innovative and exciting area. Paul Newton (co-founding Director of Neuro-Insight UK) demonstrates the difference in impact caused when such scientific breakthroughs are applied, by comparing an original advert with a scientifically engineered advert (the difference lay in adopting a freeze frame of a school of fish underwater opposed to a flock of birds in the sky in an advert for Birdseye fish fingers), which was astounding. Stopping something dead like this, he explains, is a powerful way of engaging the brain and informing it that what it is seeing is something to be remembered. The results? Sales went up significantly and recall for this advert increased by 40%.

Can science be used to manipulate what we think, like and most relevant in this economic climate, buy? Do we see or feel what we think we see and feel?

Neuroscience is already changing the way stories are being told, how far will it go?