Saturday, 29 March 2008

Litchenberg, Memory & Brands

This is a vid of Litchenberg figure being created. It comes about by injecting a piece of insulating material with a high speed beam of electrons.

I like it because it is a natty metaphor for the way memory works.

The electrons are the start of a thought. This can be engendered by by external factors, like sound and light bouncing off things and hitting our receiving dishes (retinas or eardrums) or by internal factors.

Next a branch of activity spreads out rapidly. Neurons get excited and excite their connected neighbours. A pattern is made. And the pattern is memory.

Heraclitus wasn't talking about the brain when he said 'the cosmos speaks in patterns' but his epigram is apt for the way in which it works (this is von Oech's more accessible translation; for those who care, the literal translation, according to Robinson is 'all things happen according to the logos').

Such patterns of activation build up from repeated activation. As the father of this idea, Hebb, put it, "
any two cells or systems of cells that are repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become 'associated', so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other." (Hebb, 1949, p.70). Or in other words, neurons that fire together, wire together.

That makes the prediction that if you activate a certain thought, access to a related thought will be zippier because it's already partly activated.

And this is true. Flash up the word 'bird' and 'robin' will be recognised more quickly than an unrelated word (e.g. 'arm', see Neely, 1977 for more. Plus if you care how the 'recognised more quickly' bit is measured have a look at what a lexical decision task is.)

This extends to thoughts about groups of people, also known as stereotypes (e.g. Germans, bankers, the elderly). Information about groups is built up over time (probably in the neocortical system [McCelland et al, 1995] and deployed to lubricate the whole process of person perception.

Where it gets really interesting is how these activated information bundles affect the rest of what the brain is up to. That is, how perception affects action. Lovely examples abound; here are six:
  1. People primed with politeness stereotypes are less likely to interrupt an ongoing conversation.
  2. The African American stereotype makes people more aggressive in response to slight provocation.
  3. The elderly stereotypes makes people walk more slowly and more forgetful.
  4. The professor and football hooligan stereotypes once activated affect the marks people get on general knowledge tests.
  5. The neuropsychological patient stereotype makes people score poorly on an executive function test.
  6. Primed with religious stereotypes people behave more pro-socially
(See Bargh et al., 1996, Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg 1998; Dijksterhuis et al., 2001; Dijksterhuis et al., 1998; Turner et al., 2005; and Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007 for more).

Brands are patterns of activation too. This is evident in the crisp, if less neurocognitively explicit, definitions of brands by planners.

Paul Feldwick has said “A brand is simply a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.” John Grant has even more pithily dubbed a brand the "sum of the ideas associated with it".

The ideas associated with a brand are built up over time by interaction with it and messages about it; firing together and wiring together the brand and it's associated ideas.

The logo of a brand, as its paragon symbol, should therefore act as a Litchenberg electron beam, causing an immediate pattern of activation to spread, bringing alive the ideas and concepts most closely associated with the brand.

Added to that, if the link between perception and action in stereotyping is anything to go on, presentation of the logo should affect behaviour in measurable ways.

It does. According to this great paper, published in next month's Journal of Consumer Research. After being presented with either the Apple logo or IBM logo (so fast as to be below conscious awareness), people behaved in ways consistent with the brand's associated ideas.
People who has seen the Apple logo were more creative than those exposed to the IBM one, as measured in a task thinking up different uses of a brick and as determined by independent judges.

This makes the Apple slogan self-fulfilling: 'Think different' really does make you think different.

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