Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together


One of the key factors in the human brain’s ability to change via neuroplasticity is that neurons form interconnections based on simultaneous firing over a period of time. According to Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, this theory was first proposed by none other than Sigmund Freud, but was articulated in more detail by Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb. Doidge attributes this neat summary to neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together.

This phenomenon has profound implications for many areas of brain science. Researchers have found that brain maps (the locations of the brain that correspond to individual body parts) can be altered by training. One experiment attached two fingers of a monkey together for a period of months so that they acted, in essence, as a single finger; tests showed that the previously separate brain mappings for the two fingers had indeed become one.

Another, slightly less gruesome, example cited by Doidge is the association of a lover’s pockmark with arousal. What most would consider an unattractive feature became associated with the overall state of being in love, and began to be perceived as attractive. While this was a fictional account from a Stendahl novel, we know this happens in real life. One illustration of this is given by Martin Lindstrom in Buyology. Lindstrom notes that tobacco warning labels were found to stimulate craving for tobacco. The very labels intended to frighten smokers were, in fact, a cue to smoke. Certainly, this is much like Stendahl’s pockmarked mistress; by being present on every pack of cigarettes, the warning label becomes associated with the pleasurable aspect of satisfying a tobacco craving.

The neuromarketing message here is that a consistent experience with your brand or product will become part of it. Lindstrom found that embedded brand messages like Marlboro red and race cars could stimulate a desire for the product with no overt brand or product references. While few companies have the scale to market like Marlboro or Coca Cola, that doesn’t mean that the idea of a consistent branding message should be abandoned.

Beyond brand characteristics, I think customer experience will cause these same kinds of associations. If a customer is consistently pleased by a product or service, that pleasurable experience will become attached to the brand. Conversely, bad experiences will also stick.

The “fire together” maxim is no doubt a key part of olfactory marketing. If you can associate a signature scent, like that of Singapore Airlines, with an excellent experience, eventually that scent alone will evoke positive feelings. (There’s evidence that scent may be even more potent at this association process than, say, colors or slogans.)

Your customers’ brains are constantly forming new associations. Is your brand “wiring” itself the way you want it to?

Image via Shutterstock

  1. Ben Sykes says

    This concept was beautifully illustrated in the film “What the Bleep Do We Know.” It also raises a lot of questions around truth as it relates to the law of associative memory (I see things only as they relate to my experience).

  2. Brendon says

    There’s the self-perpetuating benefit too. The more neural systems fire together, the more robust they come, and the more easily they fire. The more easily they fire, the more they get used and so on.

    If you can get something that strongly associates over time like smell (good comments on previous post – thanks Tracy) then you develop an unassailable link, and make positive feelings easier to evoke. Would having multisensory links be better.

    Where I live, a certain purple means chocolate, but there’s no sound or smell. Pizza has a distinctive jingle (so much so that a bird learned the tune!), but no colour. Who covers all the bases?

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