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Brain science is commonly taken into consideration when developing marketing and communication strategies, particularly concerning visual content. After all, the best way to influence behavior is to understand its drivers. And behavior is driven by our psychological brains. At the same time, basing a strategy on invalid data can quickly waste time and resources.
Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding our visual brains, plenty of myths clutter the published universe. To save everyone a lot of wasted effort, we’ve debunked 10 common myths about our brains and their visual abilities.
As marketers, we are constantly concerned with reaching our target audiences. One of the most basic divisions among demographics is determining if it tends to be more left-brained or right-brained.
Those who rely more on their left brain are considered logical, analytical and mathematically inclined. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, are the artistic types, more creative and in touch with their emotions.
Under the left/right brain premise, marketers can better determine the best way to communicate with their audience. Except the entire theory is a myth.
It’s true many brain functions are compartmentalized – with sections dedicated primarily for vision, speech, hearing and smell. Some functions, such as language and visuospatial processing are even lateralized on the left and right hemispheres, respectively. But neuroscientists have proven that one side of the brain doesn’t dominate the other in people of particular personalities or cognitive styles.
In one such study, brain scans of 1,011 individuals between the ages of 7 and 29 were compared. Functional lateralization was measured across more than 7,200 brain regions. While certain hemispheres showed more activity for particular functions, those differences were consistent across all subjects.
It’s practically considered common knowledge that when it comes to attraction, men are more visual. Whereas men are stimulated by sexual images, women prefer positive personality traits and character qualities. It’s a theory that marketers hold dear when devising strategies. Think about it: Are you more likely to see skin in ads targeting men or women?
Unfortunately, the widely held belief is severely misguided. When researchers at St. Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine measured brain activity of 264 women viewing a series of 55 color slides, they discovered women’s responses to sexual images were surprisingly similar to men’s.
"Usually men subjectively rate erotic material much higher than women," lead study author Andrey P Anokhin wrote. "So based on that data, we would expect lower responses in women, but that was not the case. Women have responses as strong as those seen in men."
Parents and educators have long relied on the idea that everyone is either a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. More than 90 percent of teachers worldwide agree that students benefit from being taught according to their preferred learning styles.
The concept has also been embraced by marketers, who design campaigns to reach target audiences through the communication style in which they learn best. Except none of it is true.
In fact, everyone is a visual learner. After all, we process most information through our eyes. That’s a matter of science, not perception. And while people obviously absorb information through other senses, little evidence supports that certain people learn better when taught in their favored way.
Evidence to the contrary, however, suggests that everyone learns best when information is presented through a variety of styles, targeting multiple senses.
Even if you believe in learning styles, there are a lot more than three. Sure, people can communicate through sight, sound and touch. One 2004 publication actually identified at least 71 different learning styles.
It’s absolutely true that signs and sounds can be presented so faintly or briefly that observers fail perceive them. But can subliminal messages actually impact purchasing decisions? Science tells us no.
The myth first took hold in 1957, when author Vance Packard recounted the claims of marketing consultant James Vicary in his bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders.
According to Vicary, when cinema patrons were repeatedly exposed to messages flashing on the screen for 1/3,000 of a second, urging them to purchase popcorn and soda, concession sales skyrocketed. By 1962, however, Vicary admitted that he’d made up the entire tale.
The entire theory may have been based on what we’d now call “fake news,” but that didn’t stop it from persisting among popular culture. In fact, even after Vicary’s admission, his “experiment” continued to inspire similar psychological theories, some rather far-fetched.
In his 1973 work, Subliminal Seduction, former professor Wilson Brian Key warned advertisers were embedding sexual images into renderings of ice cubes, plates of food and even Ritz crackers. While he offered plenty of hype, Key could provide no evidence to support his claims.
Instead, multiple tests have disproved the idea. When the Canadian Broadcast Company tested its audience’s reception of subliminal messages instructing them to “phone now,” it found that phone usage did not increase.
And in a 1991 double-blind study of commercially-marketed subliminal audiotapes, researchers found audiences were influenced by what they were told they’d heard, but not the messages they’d actually been exposed to. The results led researchers to label the phenomenon as an illusory placebo effect.
Everyone knows that people pay more attention to larger type and images, right? Wrong. The core principle held dear by many marketers was disproven by scientific research.
One study from the Poynter Institute tracked users’ eyes as they viewed 25 news sites. Researchers found that when they encountered large type, people actually did less reading and more skimming.
On the contrary, smaller type invited users to focus and actually read each word. Large type encouraged viewers to scan for informative words or phrases of interest.
Research has also shown larger images don’t always attract the greatest focus. When presented with a variety of images, Internet users focused more closely on small photos of recognizable people than larger images on the same Web page.
The granddaddy of all brain science myths, the claim that we only use 10 percent of our brains is so prevalent it’s practically cliché. But it’s total bunk.
"It turns out that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," John Hopkins School of Medicine neurologist Barry Gordon told Scientific American. "Let's put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body's weight and uses 20 percent of the body's energy."
Most of that energy supports the intercommunication of millions of neurons that provide for higher functions, as well as control unconscious activities such as heart rate. While it’s true that at any given moment, each of the brain’s regions may not be concurrently firing, imaging technology has illustrated that over the course of a day, we use practically 100 percent of our brains.
With the constant barrage of sensory input, people have to be expert multitaskers to navigate the modern world. Marketers are always seeking innovative ways to reach a distracted audience.
But research actually tells us that our brains aren’t as skilled at completing tasks simultaneously as we’d like to think. Instead, people are getting better at quickly switching between tasks, and even that leaves plenty of room for improvement.
Truth be told, the human brain can only focus attention on one item at a time. Sure, we can breathe and see and smell at the same time. But when it comes to the prefrontal cortex, the thinking parts of our brains, we can only switch back and forth.
And according to Stanford University psychology professor Clifford Nass, our nonstop attempts at “multitasking” actually waste more time than they save.
“The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” Nass told NPR. “They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
The “fact” has been used by countless digital marketers and visual storytellers over the past 30 years. It’s so pervasive, in fact, that no one bothers to research its original source. That is, until blogger Alan Levine made it his mission to discover the truth.
If lack of evidence is enough to debunk a myth, then Levine accomplished the goal. On the occasion, the assertion does reference a source, citing 3M “internal research.” And the statement was found in an old 3M brochure design, but no specific research has ever been uncovered.
Levine was even able to track an early claim to a 1982 article in Business Week. There, Computer Pictures Corporation’s then-president Philip Cooper said, “people assimilate visual information about 60,000 times faster than they assimilate printed copy.” But Cooper didn’t provide any evidence to back up his claim. Cooper, who is now a lecturer at MIT, has declined to comment on his source.
None of that has stopped the claim from being repeated as though it were fact in a plethora of infographics, articles and books, as well as on more than 195,000 websites referenced by Google.
In a 1996 essay, Bill Gates predicted that content would one day be king of the online world. And by most accounts, Gates’ prophesy has been fulfilled. But they’d be wrong. The reason why can actually be found in Gates’ original prediction.
“One of the exciting things about the internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create,” the Microsoft juggernaut wrote. “The internet also allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher.”
Because content can be created and distributed so easily, it’s not necessarily trustworthy. So while content might draw eyes to the page, it can’t keep them there by itself. Design, it’s been found, is the glue that holds an audience’s attention. People are simply more likely to trust content in a well-designed presentation.
One study asked participants whether they trusted a health-related website. In their decisions, participants cited design-related factors 94 percent of the time. And according to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, more than 46 percent of people say a website’s design is the No. 1 criterion for determining a company’s credibility.
Neuromarketing is the application of brain science. Neuroscientists study, analyze and seek to explain consumers’ neural responses to various marketing stimuli. It’s based on hard data, so why would anyone wonder if it’s based on fact?
The distrust is likely related to all the pervasive myths regarding our brains, as exemplified in this article. After all, if the marketing strategy is a myth, then how reliable can any sums of such findings be? Even reliable brain studies are sometimes dismissed because so much is still unknown about our brains’ inner workings.
But neuromarketing is a real and useful technique precisely because of what people don’t know. It all comes down to understanding the audience. While asking questions in traditional surveys can reveal what people openly think, brain scans and EEG measurements can reveal what they don’t even realize they feel. Such results can provide a powerful tool for marketers.
With the recent attention given to "fake news" in the media, it's more important now than ever to provide verified and trustworthy information to your audience.
What do you think about these common myths? If you know of one that isn't on this list, let us know in the comments section below!