Names Disrupt The Brain


“Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” So said Dale Carnegie, famed author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. As it turns out, Carnegie may have been onto something long before neuromarketing techniques were around to prove it. While it’s indeed gratifying when someone uses your name – according to Carnegie, it’s a subtle compliment and adds to your feeling of importance – it turns out that any proper name causes the brain to light up. A new study by Dr. Amit Almor of the University of South Carolina used fMRI brain scans to show the different responses when a subject hears a proper name or a pronoun referring to a previously named person.

“The brain lit up with activity when proper names were used, including areas that are not associated with language,” Almor said. “We saw considerable activity in areas of the parietal lobe that involve spatial processing that was absent when pronouns were used.” Almor is the first researcher to use brain imaging to explore the neurological underpinnings of humans’ preference for pronouns. He conducted his research at the university’s McCausland Center for Brain Imaging.

The brain responds to proper names by creating a representation of the person in the mind, drawing from various parts of the brain to construct complex visual, sound and other information associated with that person. Every time the name is repeated, the brain responds by activating a process that creates a new representation of the person. The brain initially holds each created representation in memory. The integration of these multiple representations requires effort that can disrupt the brain’s ongoing processing of what it hears during spoken conversation.

Pronouns, while faulty for their potential ambiguity, don’t cause the same disruptions in the brain that proper names do when used in the right context. In fact, they allow the brain to move easily from one thought or sentence to another. This seamless transition allows a person to digest more fully the meaning or intent of the thought being conveyed without the neural circuitry interference that proper names cause, said Almor. [Emphasis added; from news release, Pronouns Aid Brain Function]

The research is described in the current issue of NeuroReport. The researchers also noted that users of American Sign Language also adopt a “pronoun” substitute for proper names, in their case by a hand motion that references a previously signed name. My own dim recollection of Latin and classical Greek indicates they, too, did not repeat proper names but might use just the “person” of the verb to indicate an action or state of an individual named earlier. Jumping back to modern English, it seems that we are most comfortable with minimal use of proper names – once at the beginning is enough if there is just one individual involved, and only as necessary to prevent confusion if there are multiple individuals being discussed.

Could this be used to an advertiser’s advantage? The research conclusions suggest that the proper name actually interferes with the brain’s processing of the rest of the sentence. So, the apparent conclusion is that advertisers naming someone should do it early and get the distraction out of the way before the sales pitch begins. A contrary thought is that perhaps maximizing the activation levels in the brain might have more impact and stopping power, forcing the reader (or listener) to slow down and think to process the message. Here are two similar texts:

Tiger Woods.
He could drive any car he wants.
But he doesn’t drive just any car.
He drives a Buick.

Tiger Woods could drive any car he wants.
But Tiger Woods doesn’t drive just any car.
Tiger Woods drives a Buick.

OK, neither of these simulated ads will speed up my induction into the Copywriters’ Hall of Fame. But if you read though them, you can feel the difference. The first one is definitely smoother and easier to read. By the time you get to the third “Tiger Woods” in the second copy block, the repetition is starting to feel a bit oppressive. Still, which would test better a day (or a week) later if you asked subjects who had seen one ad or the other, “What does Tiger Woods drive?” or “Name someone famous who drives a Buick.”? I don’t have the answer to that, but it would be an interesting test.

Until there’s data specifically relating to the impact of positioning proper names in advertising, copywriters should be aware of their brain “disruption” effect and the potential for reducing the comprehension of the content surrounding them.

  1. The Ridger says

    Cool. This has applications to translation, as well – going from a text where proper names are used more often than in English, it’s hard to get students to use pronouns sometimes. Now here’s even more reason they should!

  2. Jett says

    I read this post yesterday and was definitely an interesting post. I was just wondering yesterday that uhh when and this might be kind of topic maybe but I had a friend before who came up to me in class and said how celebrities have cool names like he mentioned Tom Cruise and at the time I just agreed with him but then later on I realized that Tom is just an ‘ordinary’ name maybe Cruise would makes it a little more interesting, but I guess he said that cause you know it’s Tom Cruise and his an interesting man along with other things that go along to make him work, etc, etc. So I guess it depends on the right person too. Also when parents use celebrity names they might be more willing, if they’re looking for those kind of names, to use the name if they’re favorite celebrity or so is behind that chosen name. Also yeah you’re right about the repetition thing I realized that I used to actually do that whenever I wrote something like something for class and when I proofread it I noticed that I got kind of bored since I repeated too many pronouns or another kind of different words in a sentence or two. And also yeah you right I guess people light up when a name is introduced in text, it’s kind of like you’re making the text come alive or something 🙂 or putting life into it. And that might be kind of similar when people put faces in inanimate objects, etc like for kid’s show or something. Anyway, anyway I’m talking too much here and sorry if I had some mistakes in my comment or if it was just ‘annoyingly put’, take care and thanks for the post, I bookmarked your site and I actually found your blog interesting to read, take care once again :)_

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