Mirror Neurons And Their Role In Marketing

We all have a special cluster of cells in our brains called “mirror neurons” that seem to mimic in your brain an experience you see, hear, or read. This has profound implications for marketing.

Mirror Neurons And Their Role In Marketing

Last month I speculated that physical experiences will play an enormous role in the future of marketing and communications. Researchers have discovered that your experiences act as a kind of source code for your brain. In the same way that computer code dictates what you see on a web page, different physical experiences write different ideas in your unconscious.


But I didn’t go far enough. I should have told you that your brain uses physical experiences to make sense of the world–whether you are actually having the experience or not. Researchers call this magical power “simulation,” and it is the key to making the experiential code available to everyone in marketing, even if the work you do isn’t physical.

It all started in the mid-1990s with the eating of an ice cream cone at a research lab in Parma, Italy. The team there had implanted electrodes in the brain of a monkey in order to map out which neurons controlled the monkey’s movements. One of the researchers had brought an ice cream cone back from lunch, and as the monkey watched him lift the cone to his mouth there was a spike in the monkey’s neural activity. The astonishing discovery: The neurons that fired were the same neurons the monkey used to move his own actual body. The monkey’s brain seemed to be having a physical experience just by watching a physical experience.

It turns out we all have a special cluster of cells in our brains that scientists have named “mirror neurons” because they seem to mirror in your brain an experience you see, hear, or read. For example, researchers discovered that certain parts of your brain light up when you kick your foot. Those same parts of your brain also light up when you just hear the word “kick.” In a separate study, researchers revealed that the word “cinnamon” activates the same part of your brain that turns on when you actually smell cinnamon. You understand the word by simulating the actual experience in your unconscious–just like you are doing right now. Can you almost smell the cinnamon? That’s simulation.

This has profound implications for marketing. It means that, as we map out the experiential code set, we can apply it to television, print, digital and everything else.

Here’s an experiment that makes the point perfectly: In 2010 a team of researchers went out to a mall around the holidays to try and prove that your physical experience with “up” codes to your idea of virtue (in most religions, heaven is up, while hell is down). They brought with them two of those red Salvation Army buckets. The first bucket they positioned at the bottom of an escalator, and the second bucket they placed across the mall at the top of a different escalator. After an hour, the team regrouped and compared how many people had felt the urge to give. The team at the top of the escalator–which people had just finished riding up–received more than twice the number of donations.

But that wasn’t the end of the experiment. In a second phase, the research team simply had people watch a 5-minute video. The video was either a view out the window of a car (down) or an airplane (up). Then participants played a game that tested their willingness to cooperate with another player. Sure enough, people who simply simulated the experience of up were significantly more cooperative in the game.


We are just beginning to scratch the surface of how the experiential code set might change communications, but already some opportunities have emerged. Here are three thoughts to get you started:

  1. The way we do research should evolve. There’s a large opportunity for research companies to develop new offerings that help brand teams unearth the core physical experiences that define their customers and their products. These new research offerings should look less like the research of today and more like experiments–they should use the techniques of science to give a true read on the hidden impact these physical experiences might have on how customers think and behave, and should offer creative shops a platform for developing work that is experientially literate.
  2. Creative shops and marketing teams looking for ways to refresh an established brand, or to make their mark launching into a new category, should develop an experiential map of their brand. This should be done from both sides of the code set–work to define your own core experiences, but also work backwards from the ideas your brand stands for to discover what physical experiences map to those concepts already. Some of them will be familiar to you, but there should be some surprises that could open up new avenues of thought.
  3. Digital designers in particular can benefit from this new field. Interacting with your work already uses physical experiences–moving yours arms, hands, and head to direct the interaction. The opportunity is to design work that consciously takes advantage of the experience-idea connection. Gesture is one easy example. There’s a wealth of research that has begun to decode how gesture makes use of the pathway between physical experiences and ideas (which I’ll get to in another post), and new gestural interfaces are bringing that whole vocabulary into digital communications. Ultimately this will require a mindset shift away from just the screen and into designing for the screen and the body.

In the last month alone, one group of researchers has shown that moving your body in a fluid motion can boost your creativity, while another group revealed that wearing a white lab coat improves your performance on a quiz.

How your unconscious uses physical experiences to make sense of abstract ideas–even when you are only looking at the experience–holds enormous potential for people in the business of communication and marketing.

[Image: Flickr user Cheryl Marland]

About the author

Jacob does strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, which is a great area for anyone interested in communication and behavior. How people behave and think about health and wellness is complicated, high stakes and goes to the root of the human condition.