Even if you limit your reading these days to Stieg Larsson, the free newspapers on the underground, and the trade press you probably have come across a few scientific concepts that many advertisers get very excited about: Mirror neurons, social neuroscience, and theory of mind. Understanding how these social systems in the human brain work and how we use them to make sense of our social environment might hold the secrets for triggering empathy in people, for evoking emotions in ad viewers and ultimately how to create more effective campaigns. If only the bloody science behind these things wasn’t so complicated and one knew where to start in understanding them!
Just last week the academic publishing house Cell Press organised a one-day workshop at the University of London’s Birkbeck College on Social Cognition, the scientific area into which mirror neurons and all those other exciting discoveries broadly fall. The contributors were all first-rank scientists and luminary figures in their respective fields delivering very high-level overviews on the state of knowledge for each topic. Of course, the workshop wasn’t targeted at advertising people or marketeers (academics normally don’t feel the need to explain anything to the business world). Instead, the audience was mainly academics from a broad range of disciplines (biology to neuroscientists to social scientists). But the workshop was all free and advertising professionals could have attended (if they hadn’t been too busy to put the last touches to the very important deck for that really important pitch next week … you know how it is). So, I as the Scientist in Residence for DDB UK, was probably the only one in the audience who actually listened with an advertising ear to the latest developments in social cognition.
Since the initial publication by a research team around Giacomo Rizzolatti in 1992 mirror neurons have had a steep career and are today very widely postulated as a neural system that can explain a variety of phenomena from consciousness to the understanding of what other people are thinking (the so-called theory of mind) and the learning of complex motor and social behaviour. Really, if you do a literature search for mirror neurons these days it seems like they can explain almost any interesting human behaviour. Essentially, mirror neurons are ensembles of nerve cells in probably three different areas of the human brain that are active when we perform a certain action (like grab a cup of tea or hit a ball with a tennis racket) but also when we see other people perform the same action. By this very behaviour they could explain how we make sense out of the world around us and why we primates can learn so quickly: whenever we see someone performing an action it is a bit like we are doing the same thing ourselves. You have to admit that this sounds very elegant (and may trigger all sorts of philosophical speculations if you are that kind of guy), but as James Kilner from University College, London explained, a) they are only directly proven to exist in monkeys, b) it is unclear what they ‘mirror’ when an action that you see is ambiguous, and c) people with lesions in presumed mirror neuron areas (to be precise: the inferior frontal cortex, the inferior parietal lobe, and the super temporal sulcus – if you want to show off at the next Christmas party) can still understand the intentions behind the actions they see. Kilner thus reckons that many claims of what mirror neurons actually do have been a bit bold. They indeed seem to be active when we observe actions predicting what is going to happen next when someone is whacking a tennis racket towards a flying ball (or towards a referees head). But mirror neurons might actually not encode the intention of an action – why the tennis racket is on collision course with the referees head (and you could clearly see that there might be several reasons that caused an incident like this to happen). Thus, Kilner suggests that the function of mirror neurons is at a lower level, being more concerned with how an action is performed (eg its kinematics) rather than why it is being performed.
Does this make them less attractive to the advertiser with a curious scientific mind? Take a look in the mirror and decide.