Neuroscientists have found patterns in brain activity that correlate with single digit numbers. They can literally watch your mind count.

Research into the physiology of how our noggins work has advanced mightily in recent years, especially when it comes to witnessing perception and memory. Technologies like fMRI -- an imaging tool that notes differences in water pressure, sort of -- have been heralded as objective ways to measure what happens in brains when things that were once believed to be solely subjective occurred in minds.

The numbers recognition happens in the intraparietal cortex, and suggest that there are unique "signatures" for single digits, at least. The idea is that we possess some ancient ability to understand groups of things we'd encounter in an average day of gathering plants or running away from mastadons. The researchers thing they'll eventually figure out how brains make calculations, as well as learn more about how people learn.

Marketers get really excited about this stuff.

We've long claimed that our poetry and art of branding mattered to commerce, but the proof was always metaphorical, anecdotal, or at best, indirect. If science can start showing us physical proof of our ability to influence minds, it can both help us improve our efforts, as well as improve our stature with clients and employers. Combined with the advances in the hard technologies of capturing and tracking consumer behavior, primarily online, we might well be on the cusp of translating brands into numbers.

I'm going to throw my lot in with the Luddites and say I don't think so.

It's not because I don't think there's a lot to learn and use from the science, because there is. The more we know about how brains affect minds, and visa versa, the better we can communicate with consumers. But none of the science I've seen gets beyond the what of cognition to the why. Consciousness isn't a collection of numbers and thoughts aren't sensible like geometric proofs. For every way that we see science supporting our fantasies of mind control, we risk confusing process with content: human beings are individual, subjectively messy, and ever-changing. We can track the ways they count or remember things, but there's no mechanism for predetermining meaning, let alone relevance or utility.

Well, yes there is, and it's called behavior.

While researchers make progress poking flashlights in the black box of mind, marketers can choose to focus on understanding what people do, where they do it, how often, why, and to what purpose. In other words, flip the telescope, and worry about prompting the actions we want to see, and not trying to decipher the a prior mental states that we hope might someday, somehow, sometime result in something close to what we wanted to see in the first place.

We already possess all of the equipment necessary to see and track it completely. I'd happily trade photos of neurons firing for an email registration, or a fuzzy brain scan for consumers reading information about my brand.

The more we define brands in terms of these objective, measurable qualities, the better handle we get on what they're worth (activities are always going to be a better metric for value than mental states, however expertly rendered in an X-ray).

The Bulb Asks:

  • What would your brand look like if you mapped it in terms of what people do, and not what they think?
  • Could you come up with experiments intended to prompt those behaviors?
  • While science works to discover the true source of the human soul, are your marketing dollars better spent getting said souls to do corporeal things like buy stuff?

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/09/i-am-not-a-number.html

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