The 150-Millisecond Gap

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting room at Simon Fraser University, among five people looking intently at two squiggly lines on a graph in a PowerPoint slide. There was a Ph.D. and a handful of Masters degrees in Neurology and Psychology. I contributed nothing to this impressive collection of academic achievement. Still, there was something on the chart that fascinated me.

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.

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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.

12 comments about "The 150-Millisecond Gap".
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  1. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations, February 4, 2010 at 1:46 p.m.

    Interesting, but not very surprising.

  2. Daniel Redman from Evisibility, February 4, 2010 at 2:04 p.m.

    This is a rad article. I find amazing interest in the science of marketing, though little attention is paid to it. I wish more agencies had the huevos to dish out for behavior study.

  3. Dave Woodall from fiorano associates, February 4, 2010 at 5:23 p.m.

    This is a fascinating area of research; one I hadn't given much thought to before (I chose a career in marketing specifically to avoid studying math and science!). While your article provides an excellent summary of how the brain processes stimuli and mentions that EEG patterns differed between your test groups, I'm not getting HOW the patterns differed between groups. Are the two gaps you describe universal across all experiences the brain processes or are they specifically indicative of a certain type of experience - Good Brand vs. Bad Brand for example?

  4. Don Lokke from Lokke Advertising, February 4, 2010 at 5:46 p.m.

    So on a practical level our decision to leave the room on a 30-sec commercial is made in 150 milliseconds and confirmed 300 milliseconds later unless the brain can't detect a brand clue? So the question becomes whether advertisers are reinforcing their brand or seeking to redefine the brand among a target group. What does this do to effective frequency, lessons in re-branding, the value of creative. The question based on this research is how the prejudice of previous experience with a brand is approached and overcome or harnessed and reinforced.

    Don Lokke
    Lokke Advertising

  5. Jeff Robinson from JRC Limited, February 4, 2010 at 7:01 p.m.

    I think this is the most interesting column I have read in a long time. I have talked to thousands of clients over the years about brand decisions being emotional and visceral and now I can reference this study. I would love to hear more.

  6. Bill Scully from Siemens Water Technologies, February 5, 2010 at 9:09 a.m.

    Fascinating! Please keep us informed with follow-ups to your finding out more about the gaps.
    So how would you apply these learnings to helping improve search ROI?

  7. Ron Wright from Next Century Technologies Inc., February 5, 2010 at 11:15 a.m.

    Thanks Gord for this great piece. Sands Research ( has been applying EEG and eye-tracking for market research and applications in video, print, web and package design. Also an extensive group (400+) discussing this technology on LinkedIn Groups - Neuromarketing.

  8. David Soxman from The CMO Outsource, LLC, February 5, 2010 at 4:40 p.m.

    Great article. I was curious if you have had the chance to read "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of "The Tipping Point" where he deals with some of these issues you're referring to. He states that there are two parts of our brain that process faces versus objects, with the "faces" part of the brain being much more sophisticated. Those snap decisions, the 150 millisecond ones occur in our unconscious and it is extremely difficult for people to explain how they came to their snap decision. It's the brain's ability to filter out all of the other "noise" and can many times be quite accurate. When the conscious thinking takes over, sometimes things get muddled with too much information.

  9. Matt Chansky from Momentum 18, February 6, 2010 at 6:44 a.m.

    I appreciated this article very much. It was valuable on several levels for me. I've written a few times posing questions about how brand familiarity could trump the quality of brand design - the "familiar face" theory. Does the face need to be like a flawless movie star or is a familiar best friend just as effective? On a personal note, I appreciated the passage about the lizard brain, it adds another layer of understanding about human behavior.

  10. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, February 6, 2010 at 10:44 a.m.

    Thanks for the comments - I'll try to deal with the questions in turn:

    Dave...the differences are in measures of electronic activity picked up by the electrodes on the scalp, so we don't know exactly how the activity differed. We do know the approximate areas of the scalp where the difference occured, which was more in the frontal regions. EEG doesn't provide much spatial resolution. I actually have a more expanded version of this on my looks at a complementary fMRI study

    Don...I think you're overstating the influence of the gap. Remember, the 150 ms reaction is an unconscious one. It's not like we make up our mind and then have to change it. It's really a two stage process that happens incredibly quickly. Changing brand perceptions requires conscious deliberation.

    JEff and Bill...count on more follow ups.

    David...yes, I'm familiar with Blink, and Gladwell was definitely referring to the same types of neural activity. Gladwell used Damasio extensively as an academic foundation for the book.

  11. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, February 6, 2010 at 10:47 a.m.


    Two different categories (familiar faces and smiling faces) have been tested, to my knowledge. I don't know if there's been a study seeing the difference between how our brains treat famous and "family and friends" faces. I would think the differences would show more in the 450 ms range..the initial recognition might just what's familiar and liked. Interesting question though.

  12. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, February 11, 2010 at 9:17 p.m.

    Recent Edelman research echoes similar reports that it takes 3-5 impressions before something sinks in - and that SM impressions count the same as print or TV.

    This recalls a post from Silicon Valley VC Dave McClure that Twitter and Facebook were highly effective at building trust between brands/people they weren't familiar with, largely through the use of faces. It echoes some interactive TV trials where we evaluated usage drivers.

    We're putting this premise to the test at, where we've developed a horizontal Twitter partner bar as an alternative to the vertical stream people are familiar with. The notion is that a few minutes viewing curated tweets, along with corresponding faces, helps build trust in local businesses in places you've never been.

    Edelman preso:

    McClure post:

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