Your customers and prospects behave largely as a function of how they process your messages through their senses. Our sensory system is responsible for collecting, analyzing, and converting inputs into messages for our brain. While it is still not clear how and why our perception of events may vary from one human to another, the process by which we process inputs to our senses--touch, light, odor, sound and chemicals--is well understood. Though each sense seems to be unique and different from the others, they all share common characteristics.
Reality Is What Your Brain Makes Of It
The sensory receptors are cells specialized in the processing of sensory input into neural signals. For each sense, humans have the capacity to capture information and convert it into energy. For instance, light is converted into chemical energy by the retina which then triggers action potentials between neurons. Air pressure in our ears is also translated into neural signals once it is processed by special auditory receptors while mechanoreceptors turn physical pressure from touch or pain into more action potentials. Finally, when we taste or smell, the brain reacts based on how the chemical molecules bind to specific receptors specialized in the processing of taste and olfactory stimuli.
Each of the sensory receptors has limited fields from which it can operate. For instance, we can only see a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, between 400 and 700 nanometers. Likewise, we can only hear sound waves that are between 20 and 20,000 hertz. The brain has two types of receptors; one specialized in interpreting the world around us--exteroceptive--and the other one interpreting our own activity-interoceptive. With both receptors, we can distinguish stimuli that are coming as a result of our own doing, and others that are presented as part of our environment. All senses transport the information to the brain via specific neural pathways.
Sensory pathways are organized to transmit, amplify or reduce messages that are captured by our senses. Though they each have their own structure, it is clear that they connect with one another, sometimes creating conflicts that are only resolved by allowing one sense to dominate another. For instance, we typically hear what we see because the visual sense is faster and more dominant than the auditory sense in humans. The basis of how we process sensory input is a function of how it is transported and where. For the most part, the bulk of the sensory information is carried all the way to the brain with the exception of pain stimuli which can be processed right at the level of the spinal cord.
Though we may think that each system takes "one shot" of our reality, the evidence suggests that we in fact process many realities at once. In humans, this can be as many as 30 realities! Each sensory system is designed in segments that appear to process from basic to more sophisticated, sometimes linearly, but often as parallel processing.
Photoreceptors are the specialized cells that are excited by photons, the particles that constitute light. Rods and cones are the two types of photoreceptive cells in our retina. Rods are used for night vision whereas cones are very sensitive to bright light and are responsible for the decoding of color vision. From the photoreceptive cells, the information travels to the brain through the optic nerve, the superfast lane through which electrical signals can reach visual processing fields in the brain in just a few milliseconds. The thalamus, part of our "Old Brain" structure, is the first major relay for visual processing, and then the information is sent to the primary visual cortex in the back of our brain. It is estimated that 55% of the entire cortex is involved in processing visual data, compared to 11% for kinesthetic data and 3% for the auditory data. The speed at which visual information is handled in the brain makes it difficult for us to be conscious of what is actually captured and therefore explains why so many of our own responses happen without awareness. (For a great example of how an ad delivers visual understanding in an instant, check the Samsung CCTV ad on the home page of the Neuromarketing Social Network).
Our ability to hear is made possible by special receptors that convert changes in air pressure into sound waves. When air pressure enters our ear, it goes through a number of chambers that transform or amplify the waves which reach hair cells responsible for the generation of action potentials. Specialized areas in our temporal lobes translate these changes as music, language or noise. The hindbrain (also part of the Old Brain) is a major relay station for all kinds of auditory stimulation. In contrast to visual input, auditory information is transmitted to both hemispheres. But unlike the visual sense, we do not fuse the auditory information into "one" experience, which is why we can hear separate instruments in an orchestra.
Unlike the visual and auditory system, the kinesthetic system monitors both the external and internal stimuli that affect our body. The cortex has four distinct areas dedicated to the processing of stimuli coming from the muscles, the joints, and the skin (there are two areas for the skin: one for slow processing and the other for fast processing). Since the number of receptors is very different for one sense or the other, the cortical areas specializing in the processing of various senses are reflective of the volume of information transmitted. For instance, the areas processing stimuli from the tongue or the hands are very large compared to the legs.
Our tongue has the ability to detect four specific tastes which create stimuli processed by our taste buds. The four tastes are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The pathways carrying the information from the tongue to the brain is created by three cranial nerves which divide the data into two routes, one going to the thalamus, the other to the amygdala.
Special receptor hair cells and other supporting cells capture the chemical components of any odor in the olfactory epithelium. While in humans this space is two to four cm2, in dogs it is nine times bigger and in cats, 10 times bigger. Nevertheless, it is estimated that humans can detect nearly 10,000 different odors. Odors are processed in the olfactory bulb which relays the information to the orbitofrontal cortex, the primary olfactory cortex.
Attention and the Sensory System
External and internal stimuli are captured by our multiple sensory receptors to inform us about changes which guide or automatically trigger responses. To the degree that attention is defined as the amount of neural energy dedicated to a particular task, it is intimately related to the entire activity of the sensory system. Though it is not clear how much of the attention we place in events is completely conscious or intentional, we know that many of our senses are wired to trigger responses that ensure our survival, and as such receive priority before any other. The region of the brain which is now considered mostly responsible for how attention is spent is the thalamus, also considered an Old Brain structure.
Why does this matter?
Your customers' behaviors and especially their decisions are clearly affected by the way they perceive the world through their senses. Will they pay attention to you? Will they need to spend valuable neuronal energy to decode and memorize your key points? Consider this: research shows that oysters are perceived to taste more salty when eaten with the sound of waves. Wouldn't that convince you to take the most recent discoveries from neuroscience into account when creating your next PowerPoint presentation? That is what Neuromarketing does. It provides a unique opportunity to explain and predict many responses to your messages based on their effect on specific parts of your customers' brains. Because reality is truly what your customers make of it, you need to create business communication that is inherently optimized for the brain.
About the author
Christophe Morin is the co-founder of SalesBrain and co-author of Neuromarketing: Understanding the buy buttons of your customer's brain. He holds a Masters Degree in Business and is currently pursuing a PhD in Media Psychology with the Fielding Graduate Institute.