The graph was the result of a neuro-scanning experiment we conducted with Simon Fraser last year. We were exploring how the brain responded to brands we like, brands we don't like and brands we could care less about. The study was an ERP (event-related brain potential) study. The idea was to divide up the groups based on brand preferences, and measure everyone's brain waves with an EEG scanner. After, these waves were averaged and the averages of each group were compared with each other. What we were looking for were differences between the waves. We were looking for gaps.
It turned out we found two gaps. The brain waves were measured based on time, in millisecond increments. When we initially did the study, we were looking for something called the DM effect. This effect has been shown to represent a difference in how we encode memories and how effective we are in retrieving them later. We wanted to see if well-liked brands elicited different levels of brain activity than neutral or disliked brands do when it came to memory encoding.
The answer, as it turned out, was a qualified yes. What was most interesting, however, was the difference in the brain waves we saw when people were shown pictures of brands they love and brands they either dislike or feel ambivalent about. There was something going on here, and it was happening in two places. The first was happening very quickly, literally in the blink of an eye. We found our first gap right around 150 milliseconds -- in just over 1/10th of a second. The second gap was a little later, at about 450 milliseconds, or about half a second.
Brands = Faces?
Previous ERP work often used faces as the visual stimuli that subjects were presented with. Researchers like working with faces because the human brain is so well attuned to responding to faces. As a stimulus, they provide plenty of signal with little noise. What researchers found is that there were significant differences in how our brains process well-known faces and unknown faces. They also found differences in how we processed smiling faces and scowling faces. And the differences in processing showed up in two places, one in the 150-millisecond range and the second at about 450 milliseconds. We were seeing the same thing play out when we substituted familiar brands for familiar faces.
So, what's the big deal about the 300 milliseconds that separate the two? Well, it's the difference between gut instinct and rational thought. What we might have been seeing, as we stared at the projector screen, was two very different parts of the brain processing the same thought, with the first setting up the second.
The Quick Loop and the Slow Loop
Neurologists, including Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio, have found that as we live our lives, our brains can respond to certain people, things and situations in two different ways.
The first is the quick and dirty loop. This expressway in our brain literally rips through the ancient, more primal part of our brain -- what has popularly been called the lizard brain (neurologists and psychologists hate this term, by the way). Why the name? Because if we hesitate in dangerous situations, we're dead. So we have a hair-trigger response mechanism that alerts us to danger in a blink of an eye. How quick is this response? Well, coincidentally, it's usually measured in the 100 to 200-millisecond range.
But then there's a slower loop that feeds the signal up to our prefrontal cortex, where there's a more deliberate processing of the signal. If the signal turns out to be nonthreatening, the brain damps down the alarms and returns the brain to its pre-alert status. Cooler heads prevail, quite literally. The time for this more circuitous path? About half a second, give or take a few milliseconds. This more deliberate evaluation represents the second gap we saw in the averaged brain waves.
Why was I fixated on that small gap between the squiggly lines at 150 milliseconds? It's because this represented our immediate, visceral response to brands. Before the brain really kicks in at all, we are already passing judgment on brands. And this judgment will color everything that comes after it. It sets the stage for our subsequent brand evaluations. I have no idea what the 150-millisecond gap means. For that matter, I'm not sure what the 450-millisecond gap means. But I'm pretty sure it's important. And I'm also sure that I'll be spending a lot more time in 2010 digging into this difference.