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Left? Right? Time To Think Again About The Brain.


For perhaps twenty years, an idea has been around in marketing and advertising circles that the brain is divided into two major parts, the left side and the right side. The left side, we have been led to believe, is the logical, rational, factual, tough thinking part. The right side is altogether fluffier, more creative, intuitive and imaginative.

Many people have written books and articles on the subject. Many people have been sent on courses or otherwise forced to consider how to get in touch with which ever side of their brain was deemed to be weaker. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that this usually involved sending left brain thinkers to learn about intuition. Oddly, creative right brain types never seemed to be challenged to become better at logic).

Though I hate to use the expression for fear of sounding too left brained in this older sense, the paradigm is shifting. The scientists who originally conducted the research suggesting that the brain worked in the way described have now recognised that they were wrong. The experimental results cannot be replicated. The theory is now consigned to the dustbin, along with phrenology, the four humours of the middle ages and lots of other promising thoughts from the past.

As yet, there is not a completely convincing new model to replace the old one. However, there are indications that the left/right hemispherical split is still fundamental but in a very different way to that previously envisaged. The suggestion that seems most compelling so far is that presented by the neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg in his book “The Wisdom Paradox”. He argues that the left side of the brain is used to take in well understood concepts, stored knowledge and similar. The right side is where new thoughts, ideas or perceptions are first dealt with.

Thus, if we watch our twenty thousandth football match, we are seldom (though still occasionally) surprised by what we see. This will easily be processed by the left side of the brain. It would be business as usual. Conversely, imagine watching your first game of cricket as a child, or perhaps as a visiting American. The spectacle, the rules, the clothing, the decision making, and certainly the timescales, would be completely novel, and as a consequence the right side of the brain would be working furiously to make sense of it all.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this theory is the way the two halves of the brain work differently as we age. There is a possibility that younger people have less development in the left side of the brain. This is linked to the fact that they have less existing knowledge. More things are new to them. By contrast, their right sides may be more flexible and so able to take in new materials more quickly and easily.

Older people have more developed left sides, and greater experience banks to call upon. However, they may find it harder to take in new thoughts and sensations through the right side. Their advantage is that they can quickly understand things that relate to past learnings. In a sense, this confers the wisdom of age.

It will take time before we can thoroughly understand the implications of this new approach for marketing and perhaps especially communications.

The possibilities however are deeply suggestive.

For example, we can consider that long term advertising campaigns may be stored in the left side of the brain. This may be linked to differentiation by age in terms of what people remember. Newer ads and campaigns have to pass through the right side of the brain. Could this be why younger audiences seem more receptive to new work? Could it be linked to how older people recall ads from years ago but seem not to remember recent work? This has implications for those charged with developing campaigns and perhaps especially with that always tricky decision of when to change long running work. In a sense, it suggests that both in advertising agencies and in research agencies running tracking studies, there is a need to think again about precisely what is meant by “wear out”.

Another thought that emerges from the new approach concerns the composition of teams within our industry. Think of the typical marketing department or the creative agency. Youth reigns, in general, supreme. Based on the new thinking about the different strengths and weaknesses of the brain at different ages, is there not a case to be made for more balanced teams, combining the openness of the young and the wisdom of the old?

There are no doubt implications for other aspects of our work with consumers, brands, communications and with each other. It is time now for some new thinking.