We live in a world that is defined by the screens we watch or interact with. But unless you are using one to read this article, I'd like to ask you to put down your smartphone, turn off your iPad or simply turn away from your PC or television set and dwell on this remarkable fact: It has only been a little over 100 years since humans first began looking at screens. In evolutionary terms, that's barely the blink of an eye.
Yet screens have become an indispensible part of who we are, how we relate to each other and how we process and interpret the world around us. We use them to work. We use them to learn. We use them to play. We use them to shop. We use them to bank. We use them to communicate. We use them to connect. We use them to navigate. We use them to stay informed. And we even use them just to chill out and do nothing special at all. We may use different screens at different times and in a multitude of different ways, but more often than not, we are using a screen as a portal into our world.
But in neurological terms, even the most powerful, highest resolution, 4G-connected, gesture-sensitive, touch-enabled, IMAX-proportioned screen is nothing more than a simple interface relaying sight, sound and motion data to our ultimate screen, our brain.
"The brain is our ultimate screen because that is where everything ultimately plays out," says A.K. Pradeep, a neuroscientist who is founder and CEO of neuromarketing research firm NeuroFocus. "The reason," he says, "is that literally all sensory input eventually ends up in the brain. And the way that sensory input connects up, modifies and merges with your past experience and your past knowledge is how we experience things. To be poetic about it, it is what we think of as, 'theater of the mind.' It is the combination of all that sensory input and all that content, regardless of the platform, that mixes together in ways you hardly imagine."
Technically speaking, your brain has to fill in a lot of gaps to give us the experiences we have when we listen to or look at media content, says Devra Jacobs, a neuroscientist who is part of a team of neuromarketing researchers at Innerscope Research.
"We see and hear in a very primitive way," she explains. "Visual information - relayed along the pathway between the retina and cerebral cortex - is first deconstructed and then reconstructed, all without reaching conscious levels of awareness."
In fact, Jacobs says our brains do not even have the capacity to process the full extent of the light we receive from visual images but actually process the contrast between light and dark.
"Taking it a step further, in the cortex, cells respond to linear contours that help the brain differentiate between objects," she says of the brain's ability to filter and associate images. "This process forces an individual to go into his or her own memory to try and remember, 'Where have I seen this before?' This information is transmitted into areas that can quickly do an analysis and identify whether those images have been seen before. In fast order, it identifies whether something is comforting or recognizable, terrifying or joyful."
Memory is an important factor in the brain's screening process (see story on page 44). Jacobs says our brains store images, sounds and other memories so that when we are exposed to new media content we are able to identify and process it based on perceptions of things that have been identified in the past.
"Auditory perception works in a similar way," she says. "It comes in as sounds broken down into primitive pieces, which are then organized into a series of sounds that are then recognizable. Each sense analyzes and deconstructs, then restructures information according to its own innate connections and rules."
The sensory stimuli don't strictly have to be the kind of audio or visual content we normally associate with media screen experiences. Any sense, smell, taste, even touch, can greatly influence the way our brains process media content.
To illustrate this point, NeuroFocus' Pradeep cites the time he was at a business meeting in Madrid, using a BlackBerry to demonstrate how touch influences the way we experience media. During the meeting, he asked the executives to take out their BlackBerrys and hold them in their hands.
"If you feel the back of a BlackBerry there is almost a leather texture to it and when you hold the device in your hand there is a bit of pleasure that your brain experiences just from holding it," he explains. "It's not just the medium. It's not just the ability to make calls or send emails with it. It's everything about it, including the way it feels in your hand, that connects together in your mind. It's how those things are blended together - the way they connect and they do not - that determines the way you experience it." The process sounds simple, but Innerscope's Jacobs says it's really a marvel of complex anatomical interactions taking place inside your brain that makes it come together that way, including the way our neurons relay information.
There are approximately one billion neurons in the human brain, but Jacobs says the mirror neurons play an especially important role in processing media content.
"Every cortical neuron appears to have a connection to at least five different areas within the brain," she explains ticking off especially important "neuronal pathways," including the brain's limbic areas, which process emotion; the basal ganglia, which are involved in the higher levels of movement; and our sensory pathways. "Each area plays a response to what our cortex appreciates from the individual stimulus," says Jacobs, adding, "When information is coming in, we appear to take what we see and actually mirror what the process may be. If we look at an action on the screen, then our brain can, in a sense, 'perform' those acts - like a dream sequence." In essence, we perceive and understand media content as an extension of all the other experiences we have over the course of our lifetimes, which means that people with more diverse life experiences connect with media differently than people haven't experienced as much.
"If you are looking to target a certain audience, it is necessary to understand the accumulation of your target audience's experience across the course of their lifetime," Jacobs says, noting, as example, that it would be inappropriate to show a three-year-old content aimed at an adult audience, because they wouldn't have the life experience necessary to process it.
That's the technical view of why our brains are the ultimate screens, but there are some aspects about the way we experience media that may relate to other parts of our anatomy, says Kate Sirkin, executive vice president of global research at Starcom MediaVest Group. "I think now our brains are a big part of the final screen, but the heart is the other part," she says, offering a final bit of advice: "That's what brands really need to connect with and the brain is not always the final filter."