In the last day or two, the popular press has been gushing over the finding that meditation can change the brain. I’m not sure why – the twin concepts of neurogenesis (the brain creating new neurons) and neuroplasticity (changes in brain structure and function occurring even in adult brains) are no longer big news. It’s well documented, for example, that the brains of concert violinists allocate more brain space to the parts of the brain that control their fingers. I think what has really caught the attention of the press is not so much that the brain can change but rather that this particular change affected a positive personality trait: the subjects seemed to be more compassionate.

The nasty flip side of this finding is that brains can probably be changed in a negative way – think, for example, of young people fed a constant stream of Islamist rhetoric and hatred of people unlike themselves. The thought that these attitudinal changes could be turning from “software” to “hardware” really gives one pause…

Leaving the scary thought of hardwired hatred, let’s ask a neuromarketing question: can brains be changed by advertising?

I think there are really two answers to this. At the most basic level, ANY learning experience changes the brain. A memory is stored, and can later be recalled. Positive and negative associations can be created. We know that branding messages produce changes, too: subjects undergoing brain scans while viewing logos react positively to brands they have extensive exposure to, and not to unfamiliar brands. So, at some level, the answer has to be, “of course!” Advertising can change your brain as long as the ad or brand image is processed (even subconsciously). But, of course, lots of things change your brain in that way – the conversation you had with your boss, the waiter being rude to you, and so on.

The more profound changes experienced by professional musicians and monks who have tens of thousands of hours of meditation experience are another matter, though. The key to these changes is massive time investment. Less “experienced” monks (those with fewer cumulative hours of meditation) showed a lower level of compassionate brain activity than those with a longer meditation history. And the changes observed in musicians are for professionals who devote many hours daily to their craft, not casual players. Passively viewing occasional ads for a product or brand is unlikely to produce any major rewiring of the brain.

(A slightly related question would be the differences in individuals who, starting as children, watch many hours of television daily compared to those who engage in other activities. I don’t think the advertising would have much impact on brain activity and structure, but the overall effect of passivity, short attention requirement before a new stimulus occurs, etc. seem more likely to have some measurable effect.)

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