This Is Your Brain on Screens

Neuroscience: This Is Your Brain On Screens

I am writing a story about how our brains perceive and process content across various media screens, and I can't help thinking about what my brain is doing at this very moment, even as the words I write appear on the screen of my computer. Or, for that matter, what your brain will do when you read them in this magazine, or on some of the screens this story will eventually appear on. That's because people who understand how these things work are explaining them to me, and making me cognizant of things people don't normally think about, but which fundamentally shape the way we think, feel, write, read, or do anything related to media.

Even as I wrote that opening paragraph, areas of my brain were firing millions of neurons that were telling me things, most of which were not relevant to this story, but some of which formed the thoughts I just wrote. Millions more neurons are now firing in your brain, telling you a bunch of other stuff, including how to think about what I just wrote.

The thoughts both of us (or perhaps all of us, if this is on a public screen) are having are coming from the prefrontal cortex and language areas of our brains, says CEO and chief scientist at Boston-based Innerscope Research Dr. Carl Marci, one of the experts in a relatively new branch of neuroscience that is trying to understand how communication is influenced by the way our brains process the information we get from media, and how that, in turn, influences the way we behave as consumers of advertising, brands and media content.

"This is typical activity that requires focused attention," Marci says, describing the process you are experiencing while reading this article as a sort of a "seesaw effect" in which one part of your brain - the part that processes visual information and language - begins working harder, while the emotion centers begin working less.

Neuroscience: This Is Your Brain on ScreensOne of the remarkable things about our brains is that I can make that seesaw flip in reverse simply by writing something that triggers a strong emotional response. For example, if you are passionately conservative, I could write something that might incite your emotions - like, say, "Sarah Palin is an idiot." Okay, so maybe that reference didn't exactly cause the neurons in the emotion center of your brain to sparkle like fireworks, but that is more a function of how good a writer I am than the nature of the medium. And that's one of the key points neuroscientists like Marci say we need to keep in mind when considering the ability of our brains to process content on various screens: The type of content being displayed on those screens is an important variable.

In fact, everything is - including when, where and why you are experiencing a particular piece of content on a particular media screen, what's going on in the environment at that time, and what kind of memories and emotional baggage you bring to the viewing experience. In fact, there likely are far too many variables to ever be scientifically modeled - at least with our current brain power - but Dr. Marci, and his partner, senior scientist Caleb Siefert, developed a model to explain some fundamental variations in how we experience content across various screens.

They call it the Brand Immersion Model, and it utilizes a simple curve plotted along a graph showing the relationship between two key determinants: the "flexibility" of the content and screen experience (shown on the vertical X axis); and the level of "immersion" you experience with the content and screen experience (shown on the horizontal Y axis).

By flexibility, Marci and Siefert mean that a particular screen experience gives people more options for their brains to engage in things other than the content, message or story appearing on the screen. Immersion  is the opposite, an experience that fully immerses the users in what's being displayed on the screen at that moment.

The model may seem simple, but it's not. That's because our brains are complex and the relationship between those two variables - flexibility and immersion - isn't static. Remember Marci's seesaw metaphor? In fact, Marci and Siefert can literally show that effect, utilizing MRI images showing how various screen experiences generate neural activity in different areas of the brain corresponding to cognitive and emotional processes.

Marci started thinking about these things when he was doing research to understand the communication process between doctors and patients while working for Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (where he continues to serve as director of social neuroscience), and certain areas of his brain became stimulated enough that he made the leap from the medium of doctors' offices to the kind more normally associated with Madison Avenue. He founded Innerscope to apply some of that learning to the world of marketing and media, utilizing specialized biometric technologies that can measure how humans react physiologically to media stimuli.

To explain how brain activity can vary in ways that are important for marketers and media companies to understand, Marci gives me a relatively simple, but painfully effective, example of how our brain's ability to experience empathy works. Needless to say, empathy is a critical component of how we relate to many forms of content and to brand images and messages, so the illustration is a good one to keep in mind.

When we experience pain, say, an electrical shock, the neurons in specific areas of our brain will "light up like a Christmas tree," Marci notes. When we watch someone else being shocked in the same manner, the same areas of our brain light up, but in different magnitudes depending on how much empathy we feel for the person being shocked. If it's a close loved-one suffering, the neural activity is almost identical to experiencing the shock firsthand. If it's a stranger whom we have no emotional connection to, there is some neural activity, but to a much lower degree.

In fact, it is even possible for me to trigger those neurons simply by writing about the effects of someone being shocked, but Marci says I would have to write it in a way that describes the pain in vivid detail, which shifts the activity from the language centers to the pain centers of your brain by tapping into your mirror neuron network - the part of your brain that generates empathic responses. It only works if what I am writing describes something you can relate to emotionally.

Personal relevance is a big factor in triggering such emotional response. To illustrate this point, Marci explains his own reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which he observed from his hometown of Boston. Because he had gone to school at Columbia University, and considers New York City a second home, Marci says he felt a great deal of empathy for New Yorkers when the attacks took place. But when he traveled to San Francisco days later, he says he was "stunned" by how little the West Coasters seemed to care, and how much less it was being played in their local media coverage. "Proximity," a form of geographic relevance, "was a big factor," he says.

Neuroscience: This Is Your Brain On Screens

Proximity can also play an important role in how we perceive content displayed on a screen. Not so much the proximity of the screen to our eyes - though that clearly is a factor too - but the way we perceive the proximity of things on a screen. As a rule, Marci says size matters - even relative size. When something appears larger on a screen, our brains perceive them as being closer. When they are small, we perceive them to be more distant. As a result, content displayed as different sizes on a screen - even a very small handheld screen - can produce markedly different emotional responses.

If you see a bear two miles away, you feel one way about it. If you see a bear two feet away, you feel very differently about it," he says.

In fact, when Innerscope monitors the biometrics - heart rate, perspiration, eye movement, and other physiological responses - it can actually measure how our bodies, and minds, respond to changes in screen content. And when something appears larger and closer on a screen, pulse rates accelerate, and viewers become more emotionally aroused. That's important for programmers and marketers to understand, Marci says, because when our pulse rates accelerate and we become more emotionally charged, we also react more intensely to the content being displayed on a screen.

"Things that are liked tend to be liked more. Things that are disliked are disliked more," he explains.

It's not just the size of a screen, its proximity, or the size of content appearing on it that determines how our brains react to them. Not only do screens come in many sizes and focal points, but also with different levels of interactivity. And the more you interact with a screen, the more likely you are to be using what Marci and Siefert describe as flexibility, and the less likely you are to be emotionally immersed in the content.

To illustrate this point, Marci says to think about watching a powerful drama, or a visually stunning film like Avatar on two different screens: a giant 3-D Imax screen, and a tiny handheld smartphone screen. Watching the film on the big screen, with little around to distract you, you are much more likely to be immersed in the content. Watching it on an iPhone with the opportunity to run other applications, text someone, or be distracted by something in the peripheral surroundings of the real world, will give you a much more flexible experience. While that example illustrates Innerscope's Brand Immersion Model perfectly, Marci says that when it comes to content, not all things are created equal. It's not just size, but the inherent immersive or flexible nature of the content that matters.

Hold the image of Avatar in your head, and think how your viewing experience might differ if you watched it on the 3-D Imax screen or the iPhone. Now introduce a very different form of content, something that is highly flexible in nature, maybe a TV news show like PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Now imagine how you might view that differently on the two screens. Needless to say, many of us wouldn't necessarily want to watch Jim Lehrer on a big Imax screen, and given our druthers, probably wouldn't watch Avatar on an iPhone.

Screen experiences have become such an important part of the way in which we consume and process media content, that we've actually become cognitively aware of those trade-offs when we watch certain forms of content. Siefert learned this firsthand, when he took a friend to see the movie Iron Man in an Imax theater. "When we were leaving, my friend turned to me and said, 'Thank God, we saw that in the theater,' implying that he was actually aware of how it enhanced his experience."

Siefert says we're not always cognitively aware of the role that screen sizes play on our perception and immersion with screen content, because its effects are generally more sensory. "I recognize Tina Fey as Tina Fey whether I see her on a 16-inch screen or a gigantic movie screen," he says. "However, I'm still influenced by differences in the bottom-up sensory experience and this may have subtle but important effects on my overall experience of what I'm seeing."

In fact, it is because we are not aware of some of these sensory effects that they can have such a powerful effect on our brains. Punctuating the point, Siefert introduces a screen-related sense we haven't addressed so far - sound - which can have a strong influence on how we experience what we see on screens, but which is often considered incidental to the full-motion action.

"We often don't consider how music in a movie affects us, but it can have a strong impact on how we feel," he explains. "Watching a Hitchcock movie with sound is an entirely different experience than watching it without."

Think about that.  

1 comment about "This Is Your Brain on Screens".
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  1. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, May 12, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    I always prefer seeing movies at the theater because of the energy/buzz created by the audience as well as the screen size (especially if the movie's playing at the Ziegfeld). For me, even so-so films are improved by the theater experience. When I'm viewing DVDs at home there are too many distractions, it's too easy to delay sitting down to watch and there's always the temptation to fast-forward. The only advantage of in-home viewing is the greater control I have over keeping the room quiet.

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