It Takes Two (Hemispheres), Baby: Neuroscience and self-reporting in market research

Brace yourself: I’ve declared it Neuroscience Thursday here on Verbatim.

In Mindsight, psychiatrist Dan Sigel notes that, “When we explain … we are relying heavily on the left hemisphere. When we describe … we are bringing the experientially rich side into collaboration with the word-smithing left hemisphere.” I like this quote, because it eloquently address and settles the still-simmering debate between those who believe neuroscience-based tools will make self-reporting in marketing research obsolete, and those who have kept faith with humans’ ability to consciously understand and explain their own actions.

Allow me to elaborate. In a passage from My Stroke of Insight, her memoir of surviving and recovering from a stroke, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor makes the point that the left hemisphere, which houses the speech center, is essential to one’s sense of self.

Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment and start picking out details, details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information, associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned, and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world … it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.”

That’s one of the many reasons why we have and will continue to rely heavily on people’s ability to construct and convey narratives about themselves, to tell the researcher, “This is who I am; this is what I want and know and feel.” In short, marketing researchers depend on left-brained responses to understand consumers.

But as you’ve undoubtedly also read and heard, pre-cognitive emotions and symbolic associations – responses that originate largely in the right brain – play an enormous role in filtering out stimuli, narrowing our consideration sets, and informing the “rational” responses we express through language. And that’s why marketers and creative professionals are so keen to understand the responses of that silent, but enormously influential neuro-partner, the right hemisphere.

But in his book, The Tell-Tale Brain, the erudite and entertaining neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran make a compelling case for why anyone seeking to understand human behavior needs to take a more holistic view. He draws a tight and meaningful connection between left and right hemispheres, between language and symbols, arguing that both are essential to what uniquely define us as human beings — our evolved ability to construct stories. Ramachandran explains our ability to create and operationalize symbols in terms of evolutionary anatomy:

Very early in the evolution the brain developed the ability to create first-order sensory representations of external objects that could elicit only a very limited number of reactions. For example, a rat’s brain has only a first-order representation of a cat—specifically, as a furry, moving thing to avoid reflexively. But as the human brain evolved further, there emerged a second brain – a set of nerve connections, to be exact – that was in a sense parasitic on the old one. This second brain creates metarepresentations (representations of representations – a higher order of abstraction) by processing the information from the first brain into manageable chunks that can be sued for a wider repertoire of more sophisticated response, including language and symbolic thought. This is why, instead of just ‘the furry enemy’ that it is for the rat, the cat appears to you as a mammal, a predator, a pet, an enemy of dogs and rats … It also has a name, ‘cat,’ symbolizing the whole cloud of associations. In short, the second brain imbues an object with meaning, creating a metarepresentation that allows you to be consciously aware of a cat in a way that the rat isn’t.

In essence, he is describing what lets us experience something, then to abstract it into a story, and stories are the essence of both marketing and market research. They are the means by which insights are packaged and products are sold.

As we at Communispace employ a wider range of methodologies, from passive monitoring to active reporting, and try to elicit responses from our members’ whole brains – from the symbolic and emotional centers through the textual and rational ones – I’m ever more convinced that Ramachandran is right: It takes two, baby. And if you don’t believe me, let Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston set you straight:


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