Getting Past the Brain's Crap Filter

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🗓️ Publish Date
December 22, 2004
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Your brain didn't come with a manual.


And that sucks. Before we started the Head First series, my partner Bert and I spent years studying ways to get learning into someone's brain, and the more we learned about the brain, the scarier it got. Because in so many ways, Your Brain Is Not Your Friend. It thinks you're still living in a cave, and it's sole job is survival of *you* as a human, and survival of the species. And what IT thinks is important and what YOU think are... really different.

Learning a programming language, it turns out, isn't high on the brain's list of Things To Keep You Alive. You know this, of course, because you remember the feeling -- you're in college, finals are tomorrow, and you're cramming to within an inch of your life. But you find yourself reading the same page, maybe the same paragraph, over and over and over and over barely able to stay awake. The illegal dose of caffeine isn't working. But then the hot babe from the next dorm walks by and suddenly you're alert, coherent, energetic even. Your brain was doing a, "Hmmmmm... calculus or survival of the species... damn... tough choice!".

So we've been spending a lot of time thinking about how important it is to get past The Gatekeeper (the brain's crap filter). If the brain is trying to save your life by keeping out the OBVIOUSLY unimportant thing like tomorrow's final, then how do you *trick* the brain into thinking the boring, dry thing is as important as that tiger that ate your ancestors?

All the studies seem to show that the center of everything is your amygdala--the almond-shaped organ (actually one on each side of your brain) that responds to things that might pose a threat or help you in some crucial way (and it does some of this without your conscious awareness). If your amygdala were programmable, you'd tell it to PLEASE treat a grade less than C on tomorrow's exam as LIFE-THREATENING, and could you PLEASE pay attention and record this to long-term storage. But you can't. Or can you?

There *is* a way to program it, kind of. The inputs that tell your brain that something is important and worth recording are *feelings*. You pay attention, and record, that which you feel, because the brain is paying attention to the chemistry associated with emotions. When you see a tiger (in the wild, not a zoo), your brain recognizes the threat and chemicals surge. Your brain says, "This is REALLY important -- so remember EVERYTHING." If you've been in a car wreck, you might know the phenomenon where you remember *everything* including the background details like which song was playing. Because your brain did a complete snapshot of the whole damn scene, knowing that this was a Very Bad Thing, but not knowing which parts were important--so it said, "What the hell -- I'll just save it all."

(And I'll talk in a later blog about why your brain reacts differently to the tiger in the zoo than in the wild... it's another really cool thing the neurobiologists have learned).

So the question again is, "how do you get the brain to treat, say, learning Java as though it were potentially life-saving?" We use this in our books to try to help people learn more quickly and more deeply, and with a more lasting memory (because we write on difficult technical subjects, and some of our books are certification exam guides as well, where memory is crucial).

But then we started to reailze that it applies to marketing as well...that the principles we use to increase attention and memory for the purposes of learning are the same principles you need to do what marketing guru Seth Godin says is essential today to break through--Be Remarkable. If you want people to talk about your product or service, it better be something really worth talking about. And today--with conventional advertising on its last legs--it's harder than ever to break through and be heard. Your users (or potential users) are so overwhelmed with messages (99% crap) trying to compete for their attention, that their brains are working overtime trying to keep those messages OUT. Remember, the brain wants to conserve bandwidth for the really important things... snakes, spiders, the fact that fire is hot, that socially you need to do a little better so that you have a hope in hell of sleeping with... that sort of thing. Their brains are NOT scanning for an FAQ of how your product is technically superior or logically a better choice or... pretty much anything related to the features of whatever it is you're trying to sell.

So, that was the first thing we learned about the brain--how the crap filter really works and how to get past it. In later blogs, I'll go into a lot more detail about that. But we learned a lot more about how to get--and keep-someone's attention, some of which I taught at UCLA Extension in the mid 90's at the IBM New Media Lab (and used during my days as a game developer). We've been doing a lot of experimenting including during my time as a Java trainer/evangelist for Sun Microsystems, and later with the creation of the new series for O'Reilly. The books have all become overnight bestsellers in their category, and since we *know* we aren't very good writers, we're pretty sure it's because we spoke to the reader's BRAIN, not the reader himself. We believe that talking to your customer/client/user/prospect matters less than WHICH part of them you talk to.

Bert and I are working on a tutorial we're presenting at ETech on Creating Passionate Users based on a session we presented at the last two Foo Camps, and we've finally decided to work out the details in a blog. We'll use this space to work on our "Creating Passionate Users" tutorial (and we're also doing a book on this), as well as talk about new things in the Head First series and an interactive learning site we're working on. Our passion is the brain, but we'll talk about the core elements we believe you need to inspire customers/users including lessons learned from cognitive science, psychology, video/computer game design, entertainment (Hollywood), and yes, even advertising still has something to say (although advertising no longer works well, it still holds the key to some of the things that DO work... more later).

So... we don't know where this will go, but we'll do our best to give as much as we've been getting from the contributions of so many others on the web.