Brain’s “Irrelevance Filter” Found?


People remember things better when they screen out irrelevant inputs. Now, Swedish researchers have found that the basal ganglia area of the brain seems to be responsible for the filtering process.

Dr Torkel Klingberg and colleague Fiona McNab [of the Karolinksa Institute] used a special brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track what was happening in the brains of 25 healthy volunteers. The volunteers were asked to perform a computer-based task that required them to respond to target visual images, with or without distractions. A noise informed subjects when an upcoming visual display would contain irrelevant distracters along with the targets.

When this cue occurred, neural activity increased in the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex before the visual display appeared, suggesting the brain was preparing to “filter out” the upcoming distracters. [From BBC News.]

Whether this discovery has neuromarketing implications are less clear. Obviously, marketers would like their message to be handled in the brain’s working memory rather than relegated to “irrelevant” status. Early indications from the researchers, though, suggest that the effectiveness of the filtering activity varies by individual and isn’t necessarily affected by the circumstances. In other words, some individuals are more focused and less easily distracted than others, a situation which marketers can’t influence.

If further research bears out the idea that the brain has a filter that keeps many inputs walled off from the brain’s working memory, then traditional marketing wisdom about having to first get the consumer’s attention would certainly make neuromarketing sense. A higher impact ad will get the attention of more consumers, with some being harder to involve than others.

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