In the last five years, the marketing and innovation worlds have been buzzing about the behavioral sciences, and with good reason. The advent of brain-scanning technologies like the fMRI and PET have offered a new look at what our brains are really doing while we make choices, and the findings are stunning. For those of us who solve for human problems it is the Wild West, and our new explorers are the neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioral theorists who are linking arms to stake brand new claims in human understanding.
As a matter of summary I thought I’d share the one theme that resonates with me through study after study and headline after headline: your “gut” is doing most of your thinking for you.
The “Thought” Myth
The pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain believed to be most responsible for conscious awareness and executive function (your “thoughts”) is a relatively new evolutionary invention and at its oldest, about 500,000 years old… a mere speck in an evolutionary continuum spanning 4.5 billion years. Like most early tech launches it is riddled with glitches. Your conscious structure is a masterwork of computational power that can establish rules, apply abstract concepts to concrete phenomena, suppress animal urges, and override emotional function. Not a bad hand of tricks for such a young system, but it is wildly inefficient and highly susceptible to unconscious influence by the far more established limbic and autonomic systems. Its greatest flaw is its blindspot; your conscious mind is historically terrible at recognizing its own weaknesses.
Those of us who create new things for a living do well to strengthen our thoughts, but we also need to exercise our “gut” to empower our unconscious minds for creation, as this is where our core creative intuition lies. To do so, we must feast on a constant stream of experiences that “build our gut” by linking us physically, emotionally and mentally with those we are creating for. Why? Because it turns out that our gut is actually doing most of the thinking and creating.
Conscious Mind As CEO
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist with an unquenchable drive for innovation, offers us a helpful analogy: the conscious mind as the CEO of a large company. She is very smart, capable, and experienced; she is infinitely qualified to make strategic choices for the company. But there is no way she knows all that is going on in that company every day. She can’t, because no one person can possibly retain and process that much information. She can’t know what everybody is working on or tell you how much the company spent on restroom paper towels last year. When big strategic decisions are needed or when hit with brand new problems, she is at the wheel in action, but her attention is a very limited resource, and after setting priorities and getting the strategies and tactics rolling, she lets the system run and turns her focus to the next most important thing. She leaves most of the day-to-day choices to the much more plentiful resources of her broad organization.
Your brain works the same way. Your conscious attention (“thought” power) is a limited-capacity resource and requires a tremendous amount of energy to operate. In order to conserve that energy for what matters, your brain wisely outsources non-essential or predictable operations to your unconscious mind, pushing operations further back into the much more efficient limbic (emotional), autonomic (peripheral) and enteric (gut) systems. These unconscious systems have a 4-billion year evolutionary head start on the conscious mind and act in concert to make most of your choices. In fact, neuroscientists studying decision-making estimate that around 95% of your decisions are made unconsciously or pre-consciously. What you think of as your “gut” intuition is actually an entire complex system of neuronal networks built by both evolution and every experience you have ever had in your life. This system links with your central and peripheral nervous systems to drive decision-making. It is your most evolved problem-solving structure shaped by hundreds of millennia of evolution and sharpened by millions of personal data points to help you make well-informed choices.
Your Big Blind Spot
The trouble comes when you believe that your conscious mind is making most of your choices. Chances are good that you believe this because, by definition, it is all that you are consciously aware of. The reality is that the vast majority of your “choices” have been pre-determined by your unconscious mind, then retroactively rationalized by your executive function without telling you that’s what happened. Those early drafts of the marketing materials that you green-lighted without hesitation? Your conscious told you that you it was based on absolute trust in your agency and reasoned deliberation of the content. Your unconscious had long since decided that it was a go because it remembered the key elements and emotional impacts of your previous failed campaigns, and knew a winning idea before you did. That date you turned down last week? You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but something told you he was “creepy”. Meanwhile, your unconscious recalled a vivid emotional memory of a disastrous college date with a man of similar facial structure. That bag of chips you turned down at lunch? Your conscious mind cheered you for minding your diet, but your unconscious mind had already rejected the chips with revulsion as it recalled throwing up the same brand as a kid.
Building Gut Through Empathic Experience
Those of us who solve the problems of others through creation and innovation thus do well to hone our gut instinct by creating rich connections with the people we are creating for: our end-users, our customers, our patients, our stakeholders, our loved ones. These connections will help build a deep reservoir of personal experiences to drive our strategic instinct. To do so, we must do the dirty work of empathy: we must feel what they feel, struggle with what they struggle with, and encode their experiences into our own until they become almost inextricably enmeshed, and we can have confidence in our gut instinct. To serve our customers well, we must step out from behind our desks and drafting tables and get wholly immersed in their experience, not as a bi-annual exercise or a kick-off to ideation, but as a matter of regular creative discipline. We must hone our gut-level instincts to care about what they care about and reject what they reject, long before our conscious mind becomes aware of it. After all, that instinct is making most of our choices anyway; we should make sure they are good ones.
Justin Masterson is Seek’s Account Strategy Director and resident neuroscience geek.