This is Your Brain on Screens Revisited

An updated model for understanding how our brains relate to media screens, or in some cases, do not


"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."

If that paragraph triggered something in your brain, it is probably because some neurons fired deep in your hippocampus, the region of your brain where short- and long-term memories are formed. This then triggered an emotional response, experienced in your body, which directed your attention to keep on reading. In other words, you probably read those words when we published them a year ago to begin a story about how our brains relate to various media screen experiences.

I am repeating those words now to trigger your memory but also because this story will explain some of the advances neuroscientists have made since then and why we now understand exactly why an "immersive" screen experience, like watching an engaging TV show, can be a much more powerful environment for some types of advertising - especially ads for new or unfamiliar brands - than a "flexible" media experience like the Internet.

But first, let's dig back into our hippocampus for a moment to recall what we understood a year ago. At that time, MEDIA magazine had asked two leading neuromarketers - this issue's guest editor, Dr. Carl Marci, and his partner at Innerscope Research, Brian Levine - to help us explain what was known then about how the brain relates to media screens. What they did was review the most current scientific research on the subject and create a new model.

The model, dubbed the Brand Immersion Model, established two variables - immersion and flexibility - to explain the two extremes with which people connect cognitively and emotionally to screens. Immersive screen experiences, they explained, are screens that by virtue of the way they are being used and the nature of the content, are deeply emotionally immersive in a way that engrosses the user. Flexible screen experiences, on the other extreme, are those screens and content that people may tune in and out of and interact with - with a great deal of control, manipulating how and what they use them for. Oftentimes, flexible screen experiences are ones in which you are engaged in other activities - frequently multitasking at the same time with competing content on the same screen or a second screen - the way you might be with an Internet-connected computer or a smartphone.

The model, they said, could be used to explain the way our brains relate to all screen experiences, from the most immersive and engaging IMAX movie screen, to the most flexible app-happy, on-the-go smartphone experience. They even came up with a simple method to graphically depict the extremes of screen experiences, plotting flexibility and immersion as X and Y coordinates on a graph to show the trade-offs that happen inside our brains when we experience various screens.

Keep that hypothesis in mind. Now imagine two different screen experiences with the exact same content, the movie Avatar. In the first scenario, you are sitting in a darkened movie theater watching it on a humongous, high-definition 3-D IMAX screen. In the second, you are watching it on a tiny 2-D iPhone screen while being jostled by your fellow commuters on a subway car. The exact same content on these two different screens and settings will produce completely different experiences in our brains. So the setting, the content and a multitude of other factors, especially whether we are familiar with or unfamiliar with the content being watched, all play a role in how we experience it.

That is what would have been stored in your hippocampus if you read last year's article. Now we're going to add some new memories, based on the research Levine and Marci have been conducting since then with some of the biggest media companies in the world, especially News Corp.'s Fox Television unit. That research sought to understand what happens explicitly with advertising messages when they appear in entertainment or information content on different immersive and flexible screen environments. To date, the research has looked primarily at the differences between a conventional TV-programming experience and a typical Internet user session with multiple types of display ads, including those with rich media and video. Levine and Marci are continuing research to see what happens in mobile, handheld social media and even various gaming experiences on different types of screens, both big and small.

The initial findings will likely trigger heavy neural activity in the emotional centers of the brains of big TV advertisers and agencies. They likely will also cause neurons to fire in the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain where complex thoughts are formed - of digital planners, buyers and advertisers. The results from Innerscope's studies show that a typical, immersive TV-programming experience is likely to produce much higher levels of "emotional engagement" with the ads that appear in those shows. That's important, because emotionally engaging content is the kind most likely to form new memories and reinforce existing memories in our brains that result in important advertising communications behaviors like "brand recall" and "brand favorability."

Because of the high degree of flexibility in a typical online user's experience and the fact that even the same video programming and advertising are likely sharing the screen with other distracting content on a Web page or even other applications on your computer's screen, Levine says it tends to produce much lower levels of engagement and recall. How much lower? About 38 times lower. Hold that thought, lest it become irrevocably etched into your hippocampus, because that is not the end of the story. As Levine explains, that is the average, but there are situations that can greatly increase or reduce the potential for an ad to emotionally engage a consumer's brain in those two very different screen experiences. And one of the biggest factors, according to Levine, is actually memory. If you are exposed to a familiar and relevant ad online, you have a greater likelihood of engaging with that ad.

That finding makes sense, Levine says, because the brain has to work harder to process new information when it experiences it in a flexible screen environment which has more distracting elements associated with it. The finding also has obvious implications for media planning, suggesting that TV and Internet campaigns might work better as complementary mixes in which new ads or brands are first introduced on television, where they can bond emotionally with viewers - and generate reach in the process - and then build frequency in online media.

It also suggests that if you are introducing a new campaign or launching a new brand, you don't want to do it exclusively online, because online media does a relatively lousy job of creating emotional engagement for unfamiliar brands. How lousy? About 47 times worse than an immersive TV-programming environment, according to the work Innerscope has done for Fox.

The reason, says Levine, is that TV does a better job of triggering emotions and creating connections where none existed before. That's most likely because an immersive environment like a TV program activates more of our "mirror neurons" along with the emotional responses - the part of our brains that can create the feeling of new experiences based on observing what other people are doing. In other words, when you are engrossed in the kind of characters and storytelling that take place in a TV drama or comedy, your brain is open and receptive to creating new connections.

Levine says this doesn't necessarily mean that online is a bad environment to advertise in. Just that it performs differently than television and that advertisers, agencies and media companies need to understand those differences to utilize the mediums effectively. "The problem is that advertising designed for a television brain doesn't lend itself to an online experience," says Levine. "So a lot of online advertising isn't leveraging the strength of the online medium."

Levine says Innerscope hasn't yet figured out the optimal combination but it will continue researching online media, as well as other genres of digital media experiences in combination with television experiences to find out. That, in turn, will enable advertisers and media companies to design advertising experiences that are better for consumers based on the way they use different screens.

"The beauty of biometrics is that it gives us an opportunity to improve audience response in every medium and on each platform," says Audrey Steele, senior vice president of sales research and marketing at Fox, adding, "We're after differentiation from other platforms but also validation of the unique value of our same-content cross-platform offerings."

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