Selfi$h: Is your Motivation Helping or Hurting you? You’ll be Surprised…

Motivation is one of those dangerous buzz words in business. Everyone knows they’re supposed to have it, but very few actually understand what it truly means and how it truly works. As professionals we come face-to-face with motivation every single day. Motivation permeates our work environments because through our social interactions we are either trying to motivate others or others are trying to motivate us to accomplish tasks. Ask any manager and they’ll tell you that effectively motivating people is no easy task. Ask a really good manager and they’ll tell you it’s the most demanding, yet rewarding task there is.

Outdated and Harmful!

Unfortunately, genuine, sustained motivation is rarely achieved in most business cultures today.  Some managers have found momentary success by using carrots and sticks to motivate their employee like financial rewards and incentives. Worst of all some managers use negative reinforcement in attempt to motivate. Although they might work briefly, in the long run neither of these tactics will lead to genuine sustained motivation and quality work. People are smart. They’ll catch on and after a while they become insulted by those tactics.

As I type this article our economy is trying to recover from a near fatal blow suffered at the hands of our own device. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we do business? This isn’t your run of the mill article on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, in fact, it’s much more than that. This article is a culmination of lessons learned from social neuroscience, neuroeconomics, social intelligence and case studies regarding management strategy. Let’s dive in.

The Negative Effects of Financial Rewards

James Heyman, a professor at St. Thomas, wanted to find out if paying people more money to perform a task actually led to greater productivity. His task was simple: using a computer mouse, click and drag a circle from the right side of the computer into the box that was positioned on the left hand side of the screen. Once the circle was successfully inside the box it disappeared and reappeared in its original position for the subject to do all over again. The subjects would have five minutes to drag circles into boxes.

The subjects were split into three groups: Group 1 was paid $5.00 before beginning their work, Group 2 was paid $0.50 (50 cents) before beginning their work, and Group 3 was asked to do the work with no mention of money at all. The subjects were oblivious to the amount paid to other subjects. So how did the groups perform for five minutes of work? Group 1 dragged an average of 159 circles. Group 2 dragged an average of 101 circles. What about our group that didn’t get paid anything? They must have done the least, right? Well, no. Group 3 dragged an average 168 circles – more than the highest compensated group.

Evaluating Your Tasks: Market Norms & Social Norms

Heyman’s study demonstrates how people in our society view specific tasks. There are two ways to look at the circle dragging task: from a market norm standpoint and from a social norm standpoint. More often than not people are willing to help another person out irregardless of financial compensation, but make mention of money and people evaluate their task from completely different perspective. This is best illustrated with the social norm of helping a friend move.

If I asked my friends to help me move knowing that at the end of it all they’d get pizza and cold beer they’d be more than willing to help me. However, if I offered my friends to help me move and I would pay them $10 (estimated cost of pizza and beer) each they would probably tell me to go to hell. The mention of money to my friends, and all people, changes their thought process from helping a friend to what they will get in return for their work. In general money can significantly change our thought process and shift our focus from task completion to self compensation or reward.

The Negative Social Effects of Financial Rewards

No one person is their own corporation. We all work with people in varying capacities, and we have to remember that our social interactions are the fuel for true motivation. Researchers Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead, and Miranda Goode explored how simply just thinking about financial compensation can affect social interactions while completing a task. In this experiment subjects were split into two groups and asked to perform two tasks in succession. The first task was to unscramble easy sentences. The second task was then to complete a complicated shape puzzle.

The two groups differed only in the types of sentences they unscrambled. Group 1 unscrambled neutral sentences (for example “It’s cold outside”). Group 2 unscrambled sentences that were related to money (for example “high paying salary”).  This unknowingly primed the subjects in Group 2 to think about money. After the word scramble tasks were completed the subjects in both groups were asked to complete a particularly challenging shape puzzle. Every subject was told they may ask for help if they needed it.

As it turns out Group 1 asked for help after an average of three minutes of work on the puzzle. Group 2, the “money” group, struggled with the puzzle and asked for help after five and half minutes on average. Thinking about money made the “money” group more self-reliant and less willing to ask for help. It doesn’t end there, however. In a continuation of experimental social interactions the “money” group was less willing to help the researcher enter data, and less likely to assist a “stranger” pick up a box of pencils that he dropped and spilled in the hallway. Thinking about money makes us selfish and self-reliant, and that can seriously negatively affect success in professional situations.

Increase Social Consciousness, don’t destroy it

Studies have shown that the most successful employees are not the employees who had the highest GPAs in college or the employees who graduated from the top colleges and universities. What the numerous studies have show is that the most successful employees are the people who are best at managing their own emotions and more importantly, the emotions of others they work with. These emotions govern our social interactions in the work place and while completing tasks. To get people’s best work you need to play to the needs of their social development. Many financial reward systems are actually undermining the success of socially intelligent employees by unconsciously promoting selfish behavior in place of socially conscious behavior while performing tasks.

When we think socially we use the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex (green area), but when we're thinking in terms of ourselves we make our decisions with our reptilian brain (pink area). the very nature of the reptilian brain is to be primarily concerned with our own health and safety aka wealth.

Blind Motivation

Princeton professor Sam Glucksberg looked at how motivation works in complex tasks that involve incentives – like the tasks that most professionals do today. He used the famous “Candle Problem” to time people to see how fast they could solve the problem. The goal of the task is to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle does not drip on the table. The key to solving the problem is to use the box of tacks as a holder for the candle, a rather creative and ingenious solution to the task. He had two groups of people try to solve the candle problem. One group he told he was just timing them for norms. The other group he told if they finished in the top 25% of times they would get $5 and if they finished fastest overall they would get $20.

So what happened? The group that was promised rewards for the fastest times actually took longer to complete the task. In fact, they took and average of three and half minutes longer than the group that was not promised incentives. How does this happen? It’s simple. Rewards and motivation can serve as blinders for our vision.  A lot of the solutions to our problems are out on the periphery however through rewards promised for complex tasks we can only see right in front of our faces and there in lies the problem. Rewards and incentives distract us from true solutions to our problems.

Throw Away Your Carrots and Sticks

If-then motivational tactics remain in business because they worked well in the past. Like most business/management cultures today motivation is rooted in the industrial revolution. Motivating people was easier then because people’s tasks revolved around pushing a button and pulling a lever. Back then their tasks were simple and well defined, and for that reason the worker could be evaluated and rewarded for their work. That was then. This is now.

Today’s business tasks are far from clear cut and well defined. We work in the conceptual age – an age of business that requires us as employees to be critical thinkers and problem solvers drawing from multiple sources. Long ago we left the industrial revolution behind, yet for some reason we’re still using outdated motivators in attempt to get the most out of our employees today. There’s a clear mismatch here. In the past you could motivate by saying “If you do this, then you get that.” That simply will not do any longer.

There’s a Mismatch between what Science Knows and What Business Does

In his TED Talk best selling author Dan Pink drove this very point home that if-then rewards and higher incentives lead to worse performances in the work place. He maintains that our management systems today are rooted more in folklore than science. We can’t continue to go down his path and make the same mistakes in regards to motivation. Outdated if-then motivation systems applied to today’s complex business tasks either do not work, or worse, they do more harm. The reason I showed you three different motivational experiments was to demonstrate the variety of ways that poorly planned motivational systems can do harm. Dan Pink offers hope in this wonderful talk. Check it out.

Dan Pink’s newest book, Drive, comes out in just a few weeks. It will provide an in depth look into motivation in business today.  Personally, I can’t wait to read it.

This is Dan Pink reading his new book Drive. He is also the author of the national best seller A Whole New Mind.

What’s the right way to Motivate?

Just last week I sat around a table with my team of eight for a sales meeting. The sales manager was trying to “motivate” by using articles and talk of money and rewards. As he spoke of money and incentives I looked around the room and at my team’s faces. It was clear they were uninterested in what he had to say.  If the sales manager only knew what actually and personally motivated each employee his message might have been better received.

I am far from having all the answers in regards to motivation, but I understand these certain ideas to be true:

Understand the Motivations and Skills of Others: you’ll be surprised what people what drives most people to do great work, and then you’ll be able to connect with them to genuinely motivate them. Take it one step further and make sure your team does their best to understand the motivations of others as well, and remember, Passion + Talent = Unparalleled Success.

Promote Positive Social Behavior: encourage your employees to do work that benefits the group and follow up with them to ensure they’re asking for help and likewise helping others. Dedicate yourself to the success of others around you and you’ll find that they’ll start doing the same.

Create a Leadership Pipeline: find ways for your employees to have sense of self worth and leadership, even if it’s just for a single task. If you expect the best from your employees and communicate that to them you’ll be surprised at what you’ll get it.

Don’t Make Money an Issue: Pay people fairly and take the issue of money off the table. Money makes us selfish. It’s a fact.

Don’t Give Up: If you’re a manager be prepared to work harder and smarter than you ever have. You’re supposed to work for your staff to ensure their success. You’ll have to put others before yourself. Successful motivation is not a destination, it’s a journey. Be prepared to give and accept feed back. Be patient with others as they grow but all the while never stop giving them your best. Above all avoid carrots and sticks. You’re better than that 🙂

Sweet Brains are Made of these… The Neuroscience of Sleep and Learning

Nap time at work. Oh sweet temptation...

It’s 2:00pm on workday, and you’re sitting at your desk staring blankly at the computer screen. Your eyes narrow as you fight to keep them open. Suddenly you slip, if for just a second, to sleep. Your head drops toward your chest, but at the last second you catch yourself, and now you’re sitting at your desk slightly startled, but still painfully tired and hoping no one just saw you. What you wouldn’t give for a nap at that moment, but you drudge on with the rest of your workday in your dazed and tired state…

The described scenario is one that we have all been through. It’s a scenario that we share with hundreds of millions of Americans each week. In fact, it’s estimated that sleep deprivation is responsible for $100 billion dollars lost each year for US businesses alone. Growing up we were all taught that sleep is important and that we need our 8 hours a night. Unfortunately for most of us that was all the instruction we received about sleep. Sleep has long been a mystery for neuroscientists, however recently studies have given us much more useful insight into our sleep patterns.

The Neuroscience of Sleeping

A healthy human brain is based on a balance of neurotransmitters and energy. In regards to sleep the human brain has two opposing forces that are always “at war” with each other, thus creating a balance. One force fights to keep us awake and the other force fights to keep us asleep. Together this “war” regulates itself in a cycle that when followed keeps us functioning in a healthy optimal state. This was proved in the research by famed sleep researcher, Dement.  Dement did a lot research to discover how we sleep, but much of the mystery remains as to why we sleep.

It was originally thought that we slept to rest our brains; however that turned out to be incorrect. In reality our sleeping brains spend just as much energy our awake brains for 80% of the sleep cycle. So while our bodies are resting our brains are as active as ever. Many researchers look at sleeping brain activity and can make a strong link to learning and cognition.

In a military conducted study a soldier who lost one night's worth of sleep showed a 30% drop in cognitive skill. when the soldier lost two nights of sleep he displayed a 60% loss in cognitive skill. if you're in college and reading this you better think twice about pulling that all nighter.

Do we sleep to Learn?

John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, tells of a story about an accountant who talked in his sleep every night. This accountant didn’t just talk randomly, however. Each night this accountant would recall the numbers and statistics, with accuracy, from his day’s work. It’s believed that our brains work like this accountant’s brain in sleep – recalling and consolidating the information we learn through out the course of our days. The neurons of the brain show vigorous rhythmical activity when you’re asleep – perhaps replaying what you learned that day. (Brain Rules, Medina. 2008)

in a haste to return home for the night researchers accidentally left the electrodes still attacted to their test rat. they were studying the rat's neural activity while it navigated a maze. when they reviewed the rat's brain activity from sleep it was shockingly similar to the brain patterns demonstrated while the rat learned to navigate the maze. sleeping to learn...

The conscious human brain processes all sorts of information through out the day. The types of information we consciously process are not limited to the just the empirical, like the accountant’s statistics and numbers or school work. Because the human brain is highly emotional we process information that has emotional content as well. Emotional memory could play a role in our dreams/nightmares. It would seem that each night our brain turns off the outside world to process, reprocess, and then fine tune our cognition. Losing sleep can strongly negatively affect your ability to learn properly.

Promote Napping!

The truth is that everybody experiences the dreaded “nap zone” each day because it’s part of our biology. The drive for the afternoon nap is universal, and because of that it should be respected. The ever common “9-5 workday” is not a natural occurrence. It was actually invented out of necessity for the industrial revolution to ensure productivity.  And here we are a hundred years later still obeying a schedule set forth by men who pushed buttons and pulled levers. I am not saying we have to change our work days, but just accommodate for nap time.

NASA researchers found out that a 26 minute nap equated to a 34% increase in a pilot’s performance. Napping actually increased performance! The 36th president of the United State of America Lyndon B. Johnson routinely would close the doors to the oval office, put on his pajamas and take a 30 minute nap. Refreshed from his nap he was ready to take on the rest of his long day as leader of the free world. It’s amazing what a nap can do for productivity. This is evidence that the design of our work days should be more sensitive to our biological needs and drives. Some companies, like Google, and even schools are taking a serious look into “nap time” and the design of their days to accommodate for sleep needs and cycles.

Sleep researchers discovered that the adolescent brain requires 9.25 hours of sleep on average. to accomodate this research one Minnesota school district moved the start time of their school days from 7:20am to 9:00am. It was no surprise that this moved proved to be successful when the average GPA increased school wide and test scores jumped.

Sleep on it

In the end we all will have spent an astonishing 1/3 of our lives sleeping. My advice is to take time to truly understand your need for sleep. 8 hours has long been the recommendation, but some require more and some require less. The link between sleeping and learning is extremely intimate and should be respected. If your livelihood is based on your cognitive performance, by all means, get your rest. If you need more motivation, people who get the proper amount of sleep also have healthier bodies in addition to their healthy minds. Thank you, and good night.

What Exactly about Sex is Selling you? Can Neuromarketing sort through the Clutter of Sexual Imagery?

It’s safe to say that our culture today is saturated with sexuality. Browse any magazine, surf any channel, and gaze up at any billboard and you’re bound to find a sexually progressive advertisement staring you in the face.  As long as there has been marketing there has been the playful, and even the not so playful, use of sex in advertisements to gain an advantage in the market place.  With sexual images all around us seemingly at every turn I am turning to neuroscience to help cut through the clutter of sexual marketing to find out what really works and what doesn’t.

Is that a Burger in your Swim Suit or are you just Happy to See Me?

This spicy ad for Carl's Jr. got people talking...

In 2006 Carl’s Jr. hit the airwaves with perhaps the most sexually charged advertisement ever for a fast food chain. The 30 second commercial featured Paris Hilton flexibly washing a Bentley with soapy water and then moved to her seductively eating a Spicy BBQ Burger on the hood of the car, all while wearing a very revealing swim suit. Some media outlets declared the ad “too hot for television”, but never the less the ad was declared a smashing success. To the untrained neuromarketing eye it would appear that sex does in fact sell, but it’s not as clear cut as marketers and consumers would like to think. In fact, Carl’s Jr. used several different avenues to enhance the success of their sexually based advertisement and they may have not even known it at the time.

The Physiology of Sex and its Influence on your Brain

Every purchase we make is a decision, and neuroscience in the past decade has done a great job of unraveling the mystery of how our brains make decisions. As it turns out our “old brain”, or reptilian brain, is our decision center. Despite having a highly evolved neocortex, it was an astonishing find to discover the part of our brain that holds the most weight in our decisions is a brain that we share with most other animals. The reptilian brain’s soul focus is to help us thrive and survive. Evolutionarily speaking our reptilian brain wants us to procreate, a lot. A major influencer of our reptilian brain is our limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for our emotions and coincidentally the part of the brain that houses the hypothalamic structure which itself is responsible for regulating sex drive amongst many things. Okay, so what the hell did I just say? The anatomy and physiology of our brain allows for our sexual drive and emotions to play a key role in influencing our decisions.

Is your Marketing Sexually Relevant?

Congratulations Felt, you just wasted money on your marketing

A lot of marketers run the risk of using sex to sell something that it really has no connection to, like this bicycle. This is a prime example of forcing sexual imagery into an advertising campaign. Honestly, how many bikini clad beauties do you see riding around on grandma bikes? The end result here will be failure. Subjects that were submitted to fMRI testing – real time brain scanning – showed that in sexually non relevant advertising the sexual imagery actually distracted them from the marketers’ message. In this particular advertisement sex is doing the opposite of selling because the only thing people are focused on is the hot chick in the bikini, not the bike. In the over advertised world we live in marketers make this mistake all the time. This brings up a good question: If sex is supposed to be relevant in marketing how did the ad featuring three unrelated and arguably non relevant items of Paris Hilton, a sexy carwash, and a burger work so well for Carl’s Jr.?

Our Brains Love a good Controversy

Carl’s Jr. didn’t just air a sexually explicit advertisement for their new burger; they stirred the pot and created controversy. Controversy is a story that is packed with high levels of emotion, and as we learned before emotion, like sex, is a key influencer of our decisions. Carl’s Jr. was wise to use Paris Hilton in their commercial. As an emerging household name at the time she was their anchor for gossip and controversy. With sex as the driving vehicle the ad got people talking, it got some people outraged, and in the end it led to people seeking out the advertisement to see what it was all about. Marketing mission accomplished.

In the 1990's this was considered racy, we may scoff at it now but back then it helped launch Calvin Klein Jeans to success

Supplementing sexuality with controversy is page right out Calvin Klein’s playbook.  This designer rose to new levels of success in the 1990’s by using sexual controversy to gain exposure and drive sales for his line of jeans. He used the famous face (and body) of Brooke Shields, his jeans, and consistent design to paint a progressive picture of in your face sexuality to gain exposure, and it worked. By the mid 90’s anyone who was anyone was sporting a pair of “Calvin’s”.  Today this tradition continues with Eva Mendez as the new face (and body, oh what a body) of Calvin Klein, but because our advertising world is so saturated with sex no one’s talking like they were in the early 1990’s.

When everyone uses sex to sell it's hard to stand out. You might think "if you wear Guess clothes, you'll be sexually desirable", but there is nothing about this ad that stands out. Young unknown beauty is all around us, selling us everything. I'm sorry to say Guess's marketing is falling on deaf ears.

To reach our brains marketing has to stand out and be different. In a world jam packed with sex the path to different has taken us to a very familiar place, the mirror.

The Jim & Pam Effect

Our brains adapt to our environments very quickly. The truth is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing the ultra beautiful and sexy selling us stuff that it is no longer working like it used to. To find out if this was true neuroscientists recently studied the fMRI scans of subjects as they browsed pictures of the ultra sexy and the average. As it turns out the brains of the subjects responded more favorably to the marketing images of people that they felt they had more in common with.

John Krasinski and Jenna Fisher helped make average the new beautiful

To best illustrate this point I turn to one of my favorite television shows, The Office. By entertainment industry standards John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer are physically middle of the pack, at least at first impression. However, both actors have grown to become some of the most famous television and movie stars today and have even managed to evolve into sex symbols. On the show Jim and Pam are perceived as being “just like you or me”, but as a neuromarketer I can argue that they are at the right place at the right time from a perception stand point. Ask anyone on the street if they have more in common with the ultra beautiful Kate Moss or Jenna Fischer and you’ll get Jenna Fischer over and over again, and that matters to people because they can relate to her.

Who said Sexuality was just for the Ultra Beautiful?

The marketing strategy of using real relatable people was the same strategy that Dove used to drive their successful Real Beauty Campaign and stand out from every other hygiene company out there at the time. In doing so Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign got people talking because some of their ads showed average women in their underwear, something that society had not seen before. There marketing was salient because it was uniquely relatable and different, and at the same time it stirred up a bit of controversy – something that you need to do to go viral.

In a world the ultra beautiful Dove stood out by letting the beauty of real shine, and it worked.

Using sex to sell is a skill. You can’t just slap a picture of gorgeous woman next to product and magically sell it. Dove showed you don’t even to use a gorgeous woman. You have to take into account a lot of factors: The sexual relevance of your ad, the current environment of the market, story telling and controversy, and emotions (and this just relates to conceptual ideas, design is another discussion).  You probably won’t even notice most of the sexual advertising around you, but next time you’re stopped and find yourself staring at a particular sexual advertisement ask yourself, why did it just work?

I Want to Break FREE: The Neuroeconomics of Discounts and Business Strategy

FREE

FREE. It's not just another discount.

As workers poured into the lobby of an office building one morning they encountered a candy sale of sorts. On the table were two kinds of chocolates for sale. One of the chocolates offered were Hershey Kisses. The price tag on the Hershey Kiss was $0.01 (one cent). The other chocolates offered were Lindt truffles – a high quality chocolate renowned for its flavor. The Lindt truffle was priced $0.15 (fifteen cents). Overwhelmingly, 75% of people purchased the Lindt truffle recognizing the value in the price for such a high quality chocolate. This chocolate sale was actually the experiment of MIT economist Dan Ariely and he wanted to find out how discounts affect our decisions.

The next time around Ariely decided to lower the price of both chocolates by one cent. This meant the Hershey Kisses were now $0.00 (FREE) and the Lindt truffles were now $0.14 (fourteen cents). So what happened? The preference for chocolate was actually reversed. The Hershey Kiss was now chosen 69% of the time. The price difference was exactly the same between both chocolates, but it seems the word FREE may have had something to do with the dramatic role reversal of chocolate preference.

predictably-irrational-dan-ariely

The Neuroeconomics of FREE

FREE isn’t just another discount. The word FREE when encountered in purchasing decisions is loaded with emotion, and surprisingly, emotions are responsible for more of our decisions than logic.  Economists have long thought that logic and logic alone is what guided our behaviors and decisions when in the purchasing process. However, Neuroeconomics teaches a more up-to-date approach of how we make our financial decisions, and as it turns out more often than not our emotions are what guide our behaviors. As humans, and as consumers, we make think logically but we act emotionally. So when you’re shopping and you encounter FREE it impacts you in a way that other discounts cannot . We all share the common belief that FREE is good (most of the time), and the added positive emotional boost that you get from FREE just can’t be achieved through any other numerical discount. I’m also willing to guess there is a physiological boost from just seeing FREE.

FREE is the Future of Business

We live in the digital age, and as a result FREE is becoming more and more common. This is possible because the falling costs of digital technology lets companies make as much stuff as they want for devastatingly low costs, and when you can make stuff for low costs that enables you to give it away for FREE. Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of Radical Price, made a great point in saying “Give a product away, and it can go viral. Charge even a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business…The truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another.”

free-chris-anderson-thumb-300x445-90541

Companies can make a lot of money by giving stuff away. Businesses like Google have made large amounts of money by giving away FREE email services, however on the backside they’re increasing their revenue by selling advertising on that space. Amazon was able to boost online sales world wide by offering FREE shipping on orders over a certain amount, and because one item alone wouldn’t typically reach that required amount for FREE shipping consumers ended up adding another item to their shopping carts just to attain the benefits (both financial and emotional) of FREE.

Leveraging FREE in Marketing and Sales

Like anything there is a skill required in utilizing FREE in your business strategy to create success. Amazon leveraged FREE shipping to gain additional sales that otherwise would have not been there. Google used GMail to gain exposure to millions of users so they could sell advertising space to other companies. The strategic use of FREE allowed Google and Amazon to increase their revenue. These are just a few examples of how FREE is used in business everyday.

Apple was able to boost iPod sales initially by giving away the software program iTunes. This FREE program allowed Apple to gain familiarity with consumers and at the same time opened the door for them to easily purchase downloads and hardware to enhance their media experience. Taking it a step further the iTunes Store offers a FREE download each week and all you have to do to get the FREE song is sign up for an iTunes account. Free used properly is brilliant.

FREE can be good for businesses but it can also be bad. YouTube for example has failed to make Google any money thus far. In fact it’s draining money from Google. YouTube lets people upload and download videos as much as they want for FREE, and that is the problem. An estimated 75 billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Even though technology costs are almost near zero for YouTube, any fractional number multiplied by 75 billion is going to be a lot. In fact a recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be $360,000,000. [Gladwell, New York Times July 2009] YouTube’s continual FREE transactions are costing Google dearly because the user has no restrictions on FREE. For YouTube to turn a profit they need to find a solution that properly leverages FREE in their business plan and strategy.

Purchasing FREE: Buyer Beware

Hopefully after reading this post you will be more attuned to how businesses utilize FREE to influence your purchasing decisions. People love FREE. However, FREE sometimes is not the best option because we can emotionally overreact to FREE leading us to make poor decisions. Dan Ariely talks about purchasing a car a few years back. Because he has two children he thought logically and came to the conclusion that he should buy a minivan. Given his situation it was the most sensible option, but when he got to the dealership he was distracted by this beautiful Audi coupe that advertised FREE oil changes for the first 30,000 miles. Mislead by his heightened emotions to regain his youth and the FREE oil change offer he abandoned his logic and paid more for the Audi. Although the Audi is a nice car, Ariely regrets his decision because he knows the minivan would have been the best choice. In addition to practicality, Dan estimated his FREE oil change expenditures to be near $150 hardly worth his initial response to FREE the first time around.

Some FREE Advice

As I am finishing writing this post I just noticed that I am sipping a calorie FREE can of Diet Squirt. Over my shoulder my television is playing and I just heard a commercial for a fast food chain that is advertising Zero (FREE) Trans Fats in their food. It would appear that FREE is all around us urging us to purchase. Next time you set out to make a major purchase keep FREE in the back of your mind and make sure it’s truly the best decision for you in the long run.

Face Time

Let’s begin with this brain fact: our brains unconsciously perceive people by actively scanning their mannerisms at speeds that are so fast they are undetectable to our conscious thought. None-the-less, our unconscious perceptions of people plays a vital role in governing our social interactions because more often than not these split second perceptions are spot on. For anyone who has ever muttered the phrase, “I don’t know, I just had a bad feeling about him/her.” you know exactly what I’m talking about because your unconscious processes were trying to tip you off that something, or someone, wasn’t right. Off all the things your brain unconsciously scans for facial expressions are by far the most important and telling.

This Blog Post is inspired by the book, Blink, written by Malcom Gladwell, a personal hero of mine.

This Blog Post is inspired by the book, Blink, written by Malcom Gladwell, a personal hero of mine.

What’s In a Face?

Our faces are canvases of emotion. In most situations a person doesn’t even have to speak to convey their feelings. Happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, etc. these feelings are painted all over our faces as we work through these emotions. This is a distinctly human trait. Babies, for example, when confused with a task, will look to the facial expressions of their parents for guidance. There is actually a wealth of information to suggest that facial cues played a major role in the successful development and evolution of our species, and it continues to.

Social Intelligence, Communication, and Facial Cues

Conversation and communication is 90% non-verbal.  An overwhelming majority of the human brain is dedicated to vision and perception. Taking that into account the ability to accurately detect facial cues is vital to communicating. Studies have been conducted where subjects were shown different pictures of people’s facial expressions and the subject had to guess the proper emotion. The people who scored highest in accuracy correlated with a higher level of social intelligence.

Looking at autism, this takes to the other side of the spectrum in regards to social interaction. Most children that are autistic suffer from an inability to successfully navigate social interactions and communicate because their brains have been rewired in a way that doesn’t allow them focus on facial cues. Autism is often linked with Asperger Syndrome, which is when children lack nonverbal communication skills and demonstrate limited empathy with their peers. If you can’t read a face, you can’t detect emotion, and that severely limits your ability to form an emotional bond and understanding with a peer.

The Naked Face

No two researchers have done more for the field of emotional psychology that Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman. Tomkins was among the first researchers to focus on the link between facial cues and emotion. Ekman was the researcher who traveled the world to find out if facial expressions were universal to all humans. Ekman traveled from Europe to Asia and even met with remote tribes of the Middle East and the jungles of Africa. To crudely sum up his research: Facial expressions are the same all over the world and convey universal emotional cues. When these two minds got together they did some powerful work and completely reshaped how we look at nonverbal communication with facial expressions.

The first thing they did was strip the face down to examine the muscles that allow us to make our facial expressions. The result is that we have five muscle groups in our face that allow, in combination, for over 10,000 different facial expressions. However, only about 3,000 of the potential 10,000 facial expressions are actually meaningful. The other 7,000 are the kind of faces you made as a kid when you were being silly. These works allowed Tomkins and Ekman to catalogue the range and meaning of nearly 3,000 facial expressions and link them with emotion.

Mind Reading and Facial Expressions

Today, Paul Ekman is in his late 60’s, but over the years of research he has developed a unique ability to pick up people’s facial expressions at speeds that most people would miss. These are referred to as micro expressions. The face cannot hide emotion. At some point in conversation a person’s facial cues will tip their true intentions or emotions even if their words suggest otherwise. Ekman often video records a speech and rewatches it in slow motion to help him detect a micro expression. In fact the first time he saw former president, Bill Clinton, speak in the 1992 Democratic Primaries he detected a facial cue that to him suggested that Clinton was a “bad boy” and a guy who “wants to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar and have us love him for it anyway.” [Bilnk, Gladwell 2005]. All these years later it looks like Ekman was pretty accurate.

Most of our facial expressions can be made voluntarily. If you want to make a face right now odds are you can make it. However, our facial expressions are also governed by an involuntary system that we have no control over and detecting those expressions is a gold mind for actively communicating and reading people on a deeper level. It has been said that a person’s eyes are a window to their soul. I maintain that a person’s face is a billboard for their brain. Take the time to attune to others in social interactions by examining their facial expressions; it can only benefit you by enriching your interactions.

The Difference between Fake and Real Emotions

This is a facial comparison of two smiles from the same night. As you can see the one on the right is me smiling in laughter, a genuine emotion.

This is a facial comparison of two smiles from the same night. As you can see the one on the right is me smiling in laughter, a genuine emotion.

Here is an example of how facial expressions can convey the difference between faking an emotion and actually experiencing an emotion. Here are two pictures on the same night of me smiling. The one on the left is me “fake smiling” for a picture with a friend. The other picture on the right is a picture someone took while I was in the middle of a laugh – an honest emotion for joy. Smiling is a facial expression everyone can do on a whim. If I asked you to smile right now you could do it, and you would do it by flexing your zygomatic major (cheek area muscles around the mouth). However if you were to genuinely laugh or smile you would flex your zygomatic major, but you would also tighten your orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, which is the muscle that circles the eye.

Voluntary tightening your orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, is almost impossible, and that is the tell sign for a genuine facial expression, or a lack there of. I circled the wrinkle next to my eye (post orbital bar area) in the photo on the right to show you that it’s only present in a genuine smile. If you look at the photo on the left you will see the skin is smooth and not wrinkled suggesting a face smile. We have two smiles here – one is fake and one is real, but either way I am still really ridiculously good looking (kidding). This is an example in still frame. Can you imagining detecting this in real time as you’re speaking with someone? Your brain can probably do it and you are not even consciously aware of it.

Brain Bites: Social-Brain’s Tribute to Shark Week

SB Shark Week

Shark Week is arguably one of the most fascinating weeks of the year.  For one week we celebrate the stealthiest killer on the planet by paying tribute with specials, dramas, and documentaries. It’s amazing to think sharks have been around since the time of dinosaurs and in those millions of years since have changed very little. We here at Social-Brain are celebrating Shark Week by joining the feeding frenzy and sharing some facts about sharks’ brains:

A shark’s brain is roughly about two feet in size. Most species of shark have a “Y” shaped brain.

In comparison to most animals sharks have a pretty good brain to body mass ratio. Humans of course have an excellent brain to body ratio, but sharks aren’t all that far behind.

2/3 of a shark’s brain weight is made up of olfactory lobes. Olfaction, otherwise known as the ability to process smell, is a very important sense for predators. Since so much of the shark’s brain is dedicated to smelling, it makes it a very dangerous hunter as it has the ability to detect the scent of prey from far away.

Sharks actually have seven senses. Five of the shark’s senses are actually shared with humans. However, sharks have two additional senses that make them unique. The first is the ability to sense electrical pulses in the water, and the second is the ability to sense pressure in water. These two additional sense aid in hunting/avoiding prey and other predators.

Sharks actually have complex social interactions. This is mainly as a result of their healthy brain to body mass ratio.

A modern shark’s brain growth slows as they age, even as the rest of their bodies expand.

In 17th century France shark brain was ingested by expecting mothers to help ease the pain of child birth. Today dried shark brain is widely recognized for its ability to relieve pain.

Hopefully you enjoyed these shark brain tidbits. Enjoy the rest of the week and remember, “Live every week like it is shark week.”

Brain Boogie: Music and Your Brain

Does music just entertain us, or does it actually help us survive?

Does music just entertain us, or does it actually help us survive?

Musical Miracles

A doctor, with a guitar strapped over his shoulder, enters the room of a stroke patient in a neurological clinic in up state New York.  Bertha, who recently suffered a stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain, sits in silence in her wheel chair facing the window. The doctor greets her with a “good morning”, but there is no response from Bertha. She has lost the ability to speak as a result of her stroke, so she sits there silently, yet her eyes indicate she has so much to say. Silence continues to fill the room as doctor settles his things and adjusts his guitar so he can begin to play. As he begins to strum the guitar an interesting thing happens – the room comes to life. He sings out “Hello, how are you today?” and the Bertha sings back, “I am feeling fine, thank you. It’s good to see you again.”  As soon as Bertha realized she could sing, she realized that she could communicate again, something that she was unable to do just a few seconds ago. [Power Pop, Glausiusz. 2008]

The Meaning of Music

Much about music and our brains sill remains a mystery to neuroscience. We are still uncertain about the purpose of music. Some psychologists hypothesize that music is rooted in our evolution and is a differentiating factor in helping us procreate. Others theorize that music has healing powers, like witnessed with Bertha, and that it plays a vital role in stress regulation. And some cognitive psychologists believe that music is nothing more than beats and notes that serve no major roll than simply to just entertain us. As a musician (don’t beat me up, I play the violin) and a neuroscientist I have a profound respect for the entire spectrum of the musical experience.  In my experiences with people and music there is something powerful, emotional, and deeply unconscious that links music, the brain, and people together.

School of Rock

To investigate the mystery of music researcher Sandra Trehub has set up a lab that focuses primarily how babies perceive music.  The reason being is that if there is some innate musical ability in our brains a baby can perhaps shed some light on this phenomenon.  Interestingly enough in tests babies were able to acknowledge the incorrect notes played in a major scale, and what’s more impressive they were able to do this better than adults.  It’s as if they were better attuned to the building blocks of music. Music is vital to caring for children. It helps them learn and can be extremely resourceful in daily tasks like helping the child fall asleep. Maybe we were born to rock?

Marketing Music

It would seem that corporate America has caught on to power that music has over consumers. Millions are spent each year to brand specific types of music for specific stores. Businesses like Starbucks, Banana Republic, and Urban Outfitters are among some of the major names to brand a style of music to their stores. Some major corporations have evolved their old jingles into a specific musical scale that is not only catchy, but also is consistent with their marketing message. Jewel Osco has been testing a pentatonic scale that plays twice in ads; once at the beginning and once at the end. Rush Healthcare also does the same thing using the famed classical piece Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach.

Multisensory Music

Music affects each of us in unique ways. Aside from hearing the music, you can feel the music, and even become entranced by the music as you lose yourself completely. Music has the ability to connect with us on several levels at the same time, and it’s because of that we form strong connections with certain songs. Music has the ability to remind us of certain people, a certain time in our life, or a certain feeling. Most artists will pour themselves and their emotions into their work and when it all comes together it can form an emotional link to the listener. And as we’ve discussed a few times on this website if you can bring an emotional element to an experience or a memory it stands a better chance of being recalled in the long term.  Studies have shown a link between music and recalling past memories in elderly patients.

Music In, Stress Out

I will always remember coming back to my room my sophomore year of college to find my roommate, Adam, laying on the couch in complete darkness listening to a live Dave Matthews Band concert that way playing loudly on the stereo. Puzzled, I asked him if everything was okay. He said he said this was his stress relief when he feels really overwhelmed. So I closed the door and left to finish my studying at the coffee shop. Little did I know that Adam was on to something.

Research supports that music does in fact lower stress, both in listening to music and creating music. In one study cortisol, a hormone that is linked to stress, was shown to decrease in test subjects that spent time playing a drum along with music in a group setting. In other studies the same effect was reached with just listening to music. When cortisol levels remain high over time people run the risk of becoming ill because their immunes systems are weakened. If music helps keep cortisol levels low it may help keep us healthy in the long run.

Maybe it's the music? Maybe it's the rose petal bath? Either way she looks pretty stress free...

Maybe it's the music? Maybe it's the rose petal bath? Either way she looks pretty stress free...

The Mix Tape Connection

I have several friendships that were started on the basis of music. Creating music with people is another creative outlet to understand and connect with one or more people. After all, conversation is 90% non verbal. When you “jam” with other people you’re forced to speak a new language and to create something completely unique. In keeping with the theme of social intelligence you are forced to listen to others before you play, which is key to forming mutually beneficial relationships. However, simply just sharing music (legally, of course) can improve relationships as well. We’ve all made a mix tape for a special someone at some point in our youth. Sometimes music can emotionally express what we simply cannot or are scared to express. In some cases music is the bridge over a relationship gap.

Behold the mix tape. The muscial vessel of emotions and feelings of repressed teenage love.

Behold the mix tape. The muscial vessel of emotions and feelings of repressed teenage love.

Decrescendo

Though I have provided some facts on how music is beneficial to our brains the jury still remains out on the purpose of music. I firmly believe with all this information it is impossible that music is just simply for our entertainment. Music is pumped through the loud speakers of our sports stadiums to get the fans excited. Music is used to praise god, rouse armies, and bury the dead. Music reaches us in ways that no other experience can and it can help us get through difficult experiences in our lives. Although we are just beginning to understand the link between music and our brains it’s safe to say that we might never completely unravel the mystery of music. Some things, however, are better left to mystery.

Neuromarketing: Evolution

marketing and sales from a neuroscience angle

marketing and sales from a neuroscience angle

The Need for Neuromarketing

In the United States 8 out of every 10 new products brought to market fail within one year’s time. If we hop a flight to the other side of the world and stop in Japan we’ll come to find out that 9.7 out of every 10 products fail in the first year. These are pretty dismal numbers. Now I understand there are a lot of factors that play into the success (or lack there of) of any given good or service, but a lot of the emphasis in the launch of a product is placed on marketing.

Billions of dollars are spent each year on focus groups, trials, tests, or whatever tools researchers are using to predict the success of a product, yet 80% of the time they fail. As the market place continues to get more crowded the likelihood of success is diminishing unless we as marketers can better predict what actually appeals to potential consumers.  To achieve this goal we’re going to have to enter a new arena that few marketers dare to go; the human brain.

From the Marketplace to Our Minds

From the second you start your day you are bombarded with an assault of marketing and media: TV commercials, radio ads, banners on your favorite websites, street signs, and this list gets longer every hour. In fact, we are so heavily bombarded with marketing much of it becomes background noise to us after a while.  By the time you are 60 years old you will have seen over 2,000,000 commercial advertisements.  Astonishingly enough a recent survey from ACNielson found that the average person could only remember 2.21 commercials of those they had ever seen, ever, period (Buyology, Lindstrom 2008). This proves a point that you can flood a marketplace with advertising and marketing, but if you never penetrate the mind of a consumer you will fail.

Al Reis and Jack Trout were game changers when they came up with the idea of “positioning”.  They maintained that the only thing that mattered in marketing is not where you were at in the marketplace, but more importantly where you were in the mind of the consumer.  If your brand was present in the mind of the consumer you were exponentially more likely be purchased than someone who wasn’t and this is beyond true. If at this very moment I had you name as many brands of toothpaste as you could you would probably come up with a list of around 7 brands, if that. Those brands you came up with hold a lot of weight in your purchasing decision because they are the brands you’re most likely to purchase. And that brand you named first is probably the brand of toothpaste that is currently sitting in your cabinet at home.

From Our Minds to Our Brains

It would only be a matter of time before science would step up to the plate and start hitting some homeruns (non steroids, of course) in the marketing stadium. Science can literally map our brains through neuroimaging while we go through our purchasing process.  Neuromarketing can effectively map the entire purchasing process from our initial perceptions to our final decisions. The great thing is that we’re in it right now. Researchers are pioneering this process and learning new information every day. For example, in fMRI tests the design of The Mini Cooper triggers a part of the brain associated with faces, more specifically a baby’s face, in participants’ brains. The facial expression of a baby is a strong perception that is almost always positive and not surprisingly more so with women than men.

We are all consumers, and with every purchase we make we’re making a decision. The neuroscience of decision making, in general, is largely dominated by our emotions rather than our logic.  The question that many marketers face is how to properly blend emotional design into our products and marketing campaigns. This challenge looms over companies all over the world, and surprisingly very few have adopted the neuromarketing approach to business because they simply don’t know it even exists.

My Vision:  Neuroecology

Marketing campaigns exist to grab your attention and make you aware that a product exists. That marketing/consumer interaction is very topical and rarely goes any deeper than being present in your conscious for a brief moment in time. However people to people interactions hold a lot more weight in helping us form our perceptions and in making our decisions.  The person to person interaction is the only true way to authentically connect with another person and communicate knowledge. Neuromarketing will get your attention, social neuroscience will then communicate and understand the consumer’s needs and create a sale.

In most corporations today marketing and sales departments are distanced from one another and have little interaction. Marketing people are viewed as the creatives and sales people are often held in a negative light. However if you had your marketing department on the same page as your sales department in a streamlined brain based campaign you could effectively reach more people, and more importantly reach them authentically. Sales can learn a lot from neuroscience. Just like a marketer can tailor a promotional piece to effectively reach a desired audience, a trained sales person can effectively communicate the benefits of a product to the customer by utilizing presentation skills and strategy that are proven to help people make better decisions. I call it Neuroecology because this strategy takes into account everything that goes into a business decision from the selling environment to product perception to marketing to personal interaction and finally to the decision. More importantly Neuroecology is a dynamic process that is highly attuned to emotions, much like human nature.

A highly recomended read that detailes the emergence of neuromarketing and peers into the future of the field.

A highly recomended read that details the emergence of neuromarketing and peers into the future of the field.

Neuromarketing Threats

Some government groups are attacking neuromarketing claiming that it is unethical and want a ban on research. These people simply have a lack of understanding for what neuromarketing can actually accomplish. Images of subliminal advertising come to mind at the mention of brains and marketing, but these images are simply not true and they’re rooted in folklore. There is no magic buy button in the human brain. There are only complex processes that lead to a single decision. Neuromarketing provides us with the opportunity to improve the quality of business by better understanding ourselves and each other in order to better serve our potential consumers. Neuromarketing is scientific, ethical, and it is the future of business.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Differently

men and women

Men’s Brains, Women’s Brains, Whatever

 

It would seem that our society is finally starting to shake free the bonds of our outdated sexist ideology that has long dominated the culture in this country. A century ago women weren’t even allowed to vote. Today women are boldly going where men feared they would eventually go if given the chance: the boardroom, the corner office with windows, the high bench, and this list goes on as women are performing in positions that were long held for their male counterparts. Yet, this assimilation into female leadership has not been easy. Look no further than the democratic primaries from this past election and you can recall CNN making a stink about Hillary Clinton being the focus of sexism in politics, and SNL portraying Senator Clinton as a stern, somewhat butch, woman who was rigid to say the least.

 

Although women have broken down the equality barrier, the perceptual barrier stands tall for those who wish to be leaders and contributors to success in this country. In a study conducted with four test groups made up of equal men and women, the groups were given the job description of a vice president of the company as well as a description of personal attributes. The only factor that changed between the groups was the gender of the VP. Interestingly enough the gender change was enough to change the perceptions from group to group. Though both VPs were considered to be competent what differed between the man and woman was rather they were considered “likeable” or not. In the words of researcher and biologist John Medina, “The man was a hotdog. The woman was a bitch.” Upon reading this my mind drifted back to the primary elections of 2008 and I recall so many people saying Hillary was qualified but she wasn’t really relatable, which in mind is like saying, “she’s not that likeable.” So here we stand welcoming new players to the game yet we’re still playing by the same old rules. Something has to change.

 

Senator Clinton would have been a good President, but it was difficult for her to over come perceptions from being too stern and not relateable.

Senator Clinton would have been a good President, but it was difficult for her to over come perceptions from being too stern and not relateable.

Wait, You Mean To Tell Me Boys and Girls are Different?!?!

 

Amidst all this equality talk we forgot that men and women are different. For the sake of keeping with the theme of this amazing website let’s hone in on our brains. Men’s and Women’s brains differ in a variety of ways: anatomical architecture, memory formation and processing, emotions, language, vision and all that manifests itself in our behaviors. Men and women perceive differently and as a result we both operate differently. Now here is the important thing to remember, because our society gets this backwards all the time: the differences in men’s and women’s brains do NOT equate one sex performing better in general. Understanding and attuning to these differences will go along way in setting ourselves up for success in the long run.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen

 

Most people are actually unaware that the natural genetic default for creating a human life is female. This means that the blueprint for human life is a woman. So ladies, you can go tell Adam to shove it because Eve is where it’s really at and while you’re at it you can tell him to stop eating all the fruit from sacred trees, too.  In primates like chimpanzees (our genetic cousins) the female chimps are often the ones that exhibit tool use and innovation in their troops.

 

There are anatomical differences in men’s and women’s brain in every one of the four lobes of the brain. Here are some areas where women differ for men: Women on average have a thicker (thicker is good) frontal and prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area that is associated with decision making and higher level thought. Women also have a thicker corpus callosum than men which is the bridge of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. The amygdala, an area of the brain that is related to stress and emotional response, is larger in women than in men as well.

 

Now it’s wrong to justify personal behaviors through neuroanatomy. However, it is right to justify the behaviors of a population of women through neuroanatomy. Relatively speaking women in general tend to have a wider range of emotions, which can be linked back to the amygdala. Looking at the corpus callosum we can also begin to see that improved conductivity between the hemispheres allows for better multitasking, something that women tend to be better at then men. Women also tend to out perform men in language ability as well, and we can link that to our prefrontal cortex. Now ladies, before you start dishing out high fives and chest bumping each other we remember the theory of balance, and for balance every positive has to have a negative.

 

Women are more likely to have anxiety related problems. Most anorexics are women, and women are also more likely than men to develop bouts of depression. On the other side of the coin men have a greater chance of being antisocial, developing schizophrenia, drug abuse problems, and mental retardation. You see there is just as much good stuff as potential bad stuff going on in both of our brains.  The only thing that might dictate success is that task at hand.

 

Gender Memory

 

This is extremely interesting. Two groups of men and women were shown a video of a particularly horrifying accident involving a little boy getting hit by a car. While the men and women watched the video their brain activity was

How do you remember this incident? It'll differ depending if you're male or female.

How do you remember this incident? It'll differ depending if you're male or female.

monitored by fMRI. The very sight of someone getting hit by a car is emotionally salient, yet in this study men and women showed different brain activity in their amygdala regions of the brain. The right side of the amygdala in men lit up and in women their left side of the amygdala lit up. Two weeks later the groups were asked to recall the video of the boy getting hit by the car. The men better recalled the “gist” of the video and the women better recalled the details of the video, such as the boy was holding a soccer ball. The same video produced two different perceptions and two different recollections. Put those recollections together and you have a complete memory in tact. This holds true for emotionally heightened memories like a first date or a recent argument.

 

Gender Communication

 

Researcher Deborah Tannen did some really amazing research relating to how little boys and little girls verbally communicate with each other and how that shapes our communication patterns into adulthood. She spent a lot of time observing how kids communicate and form bonds of friendship and trust. No surprises here; boys and girls communicate very differently and girls tend to be better at it. To crudely summarize her 30 years of work girls use language and conversation to cement friendship and bonds. Along with conversation girls are great at utilizing the nonverbal aspects of conversation as well, like maintaining eye contact and physical cues. Boys on the other hand rarely make eye contact and prefer to use physicality and commotion to cement bonds of friendship and trust. The female approach to communication is “let’s do this together.” The male approach is “I can do this better than you.” This really doesn’t change all that much as we get older.

 

Bringing it on Home Social Intelligence Style

 

In regards to success social intelligence is the key determining factor. We know that there are differences in men and women and we must respect those differences. Socially intelligent people understand and realize how to get the most out of every individual. If you’re a manager and you have a team of both and women working underneath you it makes no sense to treat every person the same. We’re all different, so treat us differently, but in a way that fosters our success and harmonizes the groups’ effort. If you’re a leader, man or woman, you’re going to run into some opposition – be it a work style conflict or difference of opinion – you can better prepare yourself by understanding these differences and gaming planning proactively. Attuning to differences allows you to tailor your message and communication pattern into one that will successfully be understood by whomever it is you’re speaking with or reaching out to. In general our brains may be pretty different, but together two brains are always better than one.

You and Me, Baby, ain’t nothing but Mammals…

The Neuroscience of [making] Love

One of the most ground breaking shifts in neuroscience has been the acceptance that our brains are wired to connect with each other. Much of social-brain has been dedicated to using basic neuroscience to understand a variety of social interactions from our professional interactions all the way down to our most intimate interactions. Today our journey leads us to the pinnacle of our most powerful social interaction – love.

As a creature on this green earth we share one similarity with all the others animals and that is the desire to reproduce. The comfort level of expressing sexuality in this culture is cyclical. In one generation you had people making love in the mud while Jimmy Hendrix performed live on stage, but in the generation before that you had a riot on your hands if a woman’s skirt rose above her knee. Today sex and love are all around us. Pick up any magazine and there are tips about how to please your lover and what will drive the opposite sex crazy. It’s time to sort through the mess of pop culture and give you the neuroscience behind “getting it on.”

Mars, Venus, and Monkey Sex

What goes on in our brains in our most intimate moments? Science can now venture down that road to catch a glimpse of our brains activity in some of our most powerful personal moments. The first thing I want to tackle is the difference between men’s brains and women’s brains in relation to sexual perception, because what goes on in our brains during moments of passion actually differs between sexes. For the longest time it was a common belief that men were predominantly visually aroused while women on the other hand were cognitively and emotionally aroused. A raft of recent research has actually shown just the opposite.

Four groups were recently subjected to arousal testing: a heterosexual male group, a heterosexual female group, a homosexual male group, and a homosexual female group. All groups were exposed to different kinds of erotic video ranging from Bonobo Chimpanzees, to man on woman, man on man, and woman on woman. While the images were viewed fMRI testing allowed researchers to see brain activity of the subjects. As it turns out none of the four groups had a strong reaction to the Bonobo Chimp porn. Interestingly enough researchers discovered that heterosexual women’s arousal increased with the intensity of the sexual activity being viewed, regardless of who was in it.  Men on the other hand were far more physically selective with their arousal response, meaning that men are more particular in who arouses them. Likewise, lesbian women showed a particular arousal response like that of men.

A popular work of art made so because of the visual appeal of all sexes.

A popular work of art made so because of the visual appeal of all sexes.

Overall this study suggests that women are more flexible when it comes arousal then originally thought.  We’ve heard time and time again that “sex sells”.  This would go far in explaining future marketing campaigns based around revealing images designed to appeal to women. It should also be noted that in social relationships women are often more emotionally attuned than men, leading to the original theory that women rely more on emotions than physicality for arousal. Though there is some truth behind the emotion argument for women on the whole, what you see is what you get (aroused by).

Sexy WiFi

Some where right now a guy is showering with Axe Body Wash. When he’s finished he’ll towel off, get dressed, and then, if marketing holds true, he will get mauled by a pack of ravenous, horny, albeit very attractive women.  It’s kind of absurd to think that simple scents can have that powerful of a reaction with the opposite sex, but neural research is suggesting a secret nerve in the brain whose main role is to detect pheromones from our partners.

For the longest time in medicine it was believed that there were only 12 cranial nerves in the brain.  However a nerve has been discovered. It’s called nerve 0 or the Terminal Nerve. Interestingly enough all vertebrae mammals have this nerve in their brains, especially humans. This nerve in our brains is located at the front of the brain, right behind the forehead and above the nasal cavity. What is unique about the sense of smell in humans is that our perception of smell proceeds right to the part of the brain that processes it. In all other senses they proceed to the thalamus (relay station) and then to another part of the brain. This nerve may play a vital role in the detection of pheromones.

A pheromone is a chemical signal that triggers a natural response in another member of the same species. For the sake of keeping with the theme of this article, sex pheromones are believed to help encourage sexual activity when shared between two people. There have been colognes for men out there that promote the use of pheromones in their scent. First off if you purchased this cologne I feel sorry for you, and secondly in your attempt to get some you’ve been mislead. The range of pheromones is extremely limited. Indications are that people do exchange such secret pheromone messages, however you have to be really close to pass the message. Like, kissing close. If there is a connection between people and your intimately close the processing of your pheromones may what takes you to the next step. Pheromones could act like an unseen olfactory cupid – putting a romantic twinkle in the eye of a mate [ Scientific American Mind]. When you’re close enough for that good night kiss more might be going on in your brain than you originally thought.

You and Me, Baby, ain’t nothing but Mammals…

The sexual brain is an interesting brain. We’re all animals, essentially. Our needs are basic, and shared with our friends in the animal kingdom. Our new brain allows us to sometimes veto our most primal urges, however once those pheromones start flowing and our emotions kick in we’re really no different that any other animal on The Discovery Channel.

Sex Sells. Even when it comes to designing a Disney Princess. In a straw pole taken by my creepy friends they selected Princess Jasmine the most seductive of all princesses.

Sex Sells. Even when it comes to designing a Disney Princess. In a straw pole taken by my creepy friends they selected Princess Jasmine the most seductive of all princesses.