Go With The Grain Of The Brain

Last year, my colleague and mentor, the late David Wolfe, recommended I read a book by British neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is the title. I’ve read several books on how the mind works, including How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer and The Mature Mind by Gene Cohen. Although clearly not a neuropsychiatrist, I’ve tried to keep current with brain science. 

The central theme of The Master is that the Western mind has become so dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain as to imperil humanity’s future. Now, while that might sound extreme, keep in mind that we live in extreme times that seem to be getting more extreme.

McGilchrist examines the influence of the brain’s hemispheres on Western culture over a 2,500-year period. You can see a summary of his ideas in the Wall Street Journalhere. It's worth a look. His descriptions of the differences between the two hemispheres are memorable for their clarity and detail. McGilchrist’s insights into the brain’s hemispheres will open your eyes.



The neuropsychological evidence shows that the right hemisphere pays wide-open attention to the world, seeing the whole, whereas the left hemisphere is adept at focusing on a detail. A new experience, whatever its kind, is better apprehended by the right hemisphere, whereas the predictable is better dealt with by the left. And, because the right hemisphere sees things in context, as inseparably interconnected, it recognizes the vast extent of what remains implicit. By contrast, because of its narrow focus, the left hemisphere isolates what it sees, and is relatively blind to things that can be conveyed only indirectly.

So, what can understanding how the brain functions help online and traditional marketers? The answer is plenty. For example, he describes why the left brain is resistant to new information regardless of how brilliantly it is presented. Further, the left brain will generally not process new information coming into the brain unless it has first been processed by the right brain. Knowing that, early on in the process of connecting with Baby Boomers and seniors, you should never again design a website/page or flight an ad with copious details about the features of a product. It simply doesn’t get processed. Get the right brain’s attention first, and provide people access to more information as they may require.

The message: stop putting ten pounds of copy into a five-pound landing page or ad page because you want the reader to know all about your product. Instead of telling customers how great your products or services are, tell a story. Show the reader how your product or service is a gateway to an experience they may be looking for. Sure, you’ve heard this before, but do you really take the advice to heart? The right brain pays attention to stories but not lectures. Stories should be word pictures because the right brain’s command of verbal language is somewhat primitive. It is the visual side of the brain, so it gets pictures. It doesn’t get verbal arguments. 

You may also find insights in The Master that may help you with clients and others you work with/for. As an example, when you present a new idea, especially an out-of-the-box idea to a client or colleagues and get a negative response, it is almost certainly their left brains that are giving you thumbs down. 

Think about when you visit your doctor for a check-up. Like the reflex you experience when your doctor whacks you on your knee with a rubber hammer, the left brain reflexively rejects new information that does not conform to the model of reality it already has in place. In contrast, the right brain lusts for novelty. So, if you want to sell an out-of-the-box idea to someone, start by getting the emotional, curious and story-conscious right brain involved. The right brain is the portal to the left brain and if it likes what it sees, you’re in!

Finally, the whole business of marketing, sales and public relations is about getting information into people's brains and persuading their minds to buy or do something. The older we become the more emotional reactions determine if we should think about a matter (the right brain works harder). Emotional triggers in the right brain activate memories, and the stronger the memory, the stronger the emotional response. 

In marketing and sales - it's not what Baby Boomer and senior customers think that's most important -- just as important is how they think. Marketing and sales must integrate both empathy and vulnerability into marketing messages. These two attributes are necessary to build trust, and are essential to optimal results in marketing and sales communications. A good understanding of how a customer's brain, preconscious and conscious mind processes information in the fall and winter of life is a key to effective communications. If an ad or sales presentation fails to connect with a baby boomer and senior customer's right brain, it is more likely to be ignored.

4 comments about "Go With The Grain Of The Brain ".
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  1. Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group, October 1, 2012 at 11:21 a.m.

    Thank you for a very interesting, insightful column. I am going to explore these books. I think your points apply to almost any adult consumer, regardless of generation, though strategies and tactics may have to vary to be relevant.

  2. Brian Spain from Brian Spain, October 1, 2012 at 2:27 p.m.

    Great article, Jim. Thank you so much. This will be useful in some discussions I'm having right now.
    The book you describe reminds me of Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. This argues the importance of engaging the right side of the brain more, but has the added bonus of suggesting exercises at the end of each chapter devoted to a right brain concept. Perhaps less scientific, but a thoroughly enjoyable and potentially useful read.

  3. Richard Ambrosius from Positive Aging LLC, October 2, 2012 at 7:53 p.m.

    Excellent article Jim! I very much remember the interchange between David and McGilchrist. It is amazing the more marketers and companies are not embracing this ageless David would say, "It's easy, just lead with the right and follow with the left." You a masterful desciple for his message. Thanks for your continued sharing.

  4. Jim Gilmartin from Coming of Age, October 3, 2012 at 2:21 p.m.

    Dick, thanks for the oblique compliment. When writing my thoughts on connecting with older customers I consider a number of sources and extrapolate my take on the subject matter. To my knowledge no one has the definitive answer to connecting best with older populations. And, many have differing opinions on the “left brain/right brain dialogue (see the comments on the WSJ article referenced). It’s researchers like McGilcrist and your referrenced Prof. Timothy Salthouse that challenge our thinking and offer us alternatives to explore in the practical world of marketing.

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