February 2, 2008

We’ve all heard that you are what you eat. Good food makes a healthy body. Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots, didn’t get to be the player he is eating nothing but potatoes chips and doughnuts.

Just as how we are what we eat, we are, to some extent, what we watch too. Our brains respond to all sorts of external stimuli and our bodies and minds react accordingly. So much so that advertisers are hoping to tap into that information to make more effective TV ads as well as better market their products to us. To understand how, let’s first take a closer look at the brain.

Our Brain – The Control Centre

The human brain is possibly one of the most amazing and complicated things on earth. It’s made mostly of cells called neurons, and it’s these neurons working together that make us feel happy, sad, or understand what Shakespeare’s talking about (or not). What’s so amazing about them is that on their own they can do next to nothing, but, when you get a whole bunch of them together they can go to the moon and back.

Did You Know?
An adult human brain weighs between 1,300 – 1,400 grams, while the brain of a full-grown gorilla weighs only 465-540 grams. Neurons are tiny, just 4 to 100 micrometers in diameter (that’s one millionth of a meter!). But, there are a lot of them. We aren’t exactly sure how many, but we think there are about 100 billion in a normal human brain.

Each neuron in the brain is connected to some of the other neurons around it, and they can pass messages to one another with molecules called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are like the text messages of the brain, and there are millions or billions of them being sent every second.

Did You Know?
It’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brains. We use all of our brain, just not all at the same time.

We Are What We Eat…and Watch!

So, how does what we watch on TV influence our emotions? Researchers at UCLA in California attempted to answer just that same question by studying people’s brain activity while watching various TV commercials during the SuperBowl.

Did You Know?
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, uses blood flow activity to measure brain activity. When specific areas of the brain are active, blood circulation and oxygen increase in those regions, and the fMRI can detect that activity. Using brain scan images produced using fMRI, they looked at “activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision, and reward” and then looked at their level of “engagement”.

Although they found that the majority of ads elicit very little response, last year, it was Coca-Cola's "Video Game" ad that scored the highest with people’s positive emotions.

What’s also interesting is that out brain is constantly rewiring itself, changing and moulding itself. Your brain is even doing this watching TV, rewiring itself based on what it sees. The term used to refer to this rewiring is neural plasticity.

Did You Know?
When we’re infants our brain builds more connections between neurons than we can use. As we get older our brain removes connections that aren’t used. But just like we need to eat well and exercise our bodies to stay physically fit, we need to exercise our brains to mentally fit. Research has shown that challenging your brain can help to prevent all kinds of degenerative mental diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Some ways to exercise you brain:

1. Be social. This can be anything from joining a club with common interests or just hanging out a talking with friends

2. Learn something new: Languages, music, a new sport or hobby

3. Play games that involve memory or strategy

4. Reading. Especially new and challenging material

5. Writing. Short stories, comics, poetry, keeping a journal, anything

6. Do puzzles like Sodoku and crosswords

Learn More!

How Neuron’s work

Wikipedia on Neural plasticity

Braingle on Brain exercises


USA Today: Advertising and Marketing

Jeff is a second year interdisciplinary graduate student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of Victoria. He loves science and doing research, but balances that with the abundance of outdoor activities possible on the West Coast. Cool fact about Jeff: He’s scared of budgies but not bears.


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