A few months ago, we mentioned “mirror neurons“, which fire when a subject watches another subject perform an action. If the subject has performed the action before himself, these neurons will duplicate, or “mirror” the, action in the subject’s brain.

The latest edition of Scientific American Mind has an excellent survey of what we know about mirror neurons, A Revealing Reflection. One of the interesting findings mentioned in the article is that even sounds can trigger mirror neurons if the sound evokes a specific action, like tearing a sheet of paper. Much of the work in this area is being done by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi of the University of Parma in Italy, as well as Marco Iacoboni at UCLA, Michael ARbib of USC< and Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

What all this means to marketers is unclear. However, it may well be that effective use of sounds can enhance the impact of the ad on the viewer. For example, a beverage maker who includes the sound of a bottle cap being popped off, the gurgling of the beverage flowing into the glass, etc. is exciting sympathetic reactions from mirror neurons from viewers/listeners who have performed the same action many times themselves. (Then again, simple Pavlovian conditioning might be at least as important - the same pictures and sounds almost certainly trigger an expectation of a refreshing drink to follow.)

The same article discusses research conducted by Bruno Wicker of the University of the Mediterranean in Marseilles, France. Wicker, using fMRI, found that "feeling disgust and seeing a look of revulsion on someone else's face caused the same set of mirror neurons to fire in the insula, a part of the cortex active in synthesizing convergent information." How these mirror neurons affect perceptions and behavior isn't clear, but some of the effects described in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink suggest that some effect wouldn’t be unlikely. His descriptions of priming, in which behavior is affected by reading words which evoke a subconscious feeling, and his description of mood changes when researchers formed specific facial expressions all imply subtle behavioral effects can be artificially created.

Again, what this emotional mirroring means to marketers is still not known. Since the dawn of advertising photography, advertisers have shown happy faces associated with using their product. While this seems like simple logic (do you want someone quaffing your beverage to look upset or disgusted?), perhaps there’s some neuroscience involved, too – show the happy face, and mirror neurons will fire in viewers’ brains.

Looking for more thoughts on mirror neurons? See Kathy Sierra’s post that covers mirror neurons, emotional contagion, and related topics. Also check Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution by V.S. Ramachandran, and discussion of that article.

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