Molecules of the Mind
On a cold December day in 1879, a long-faced, middle-aged professor was ready to start new experiments on the human mind together with a couple of selected students. Having prepared for the better part of 15 years, Wilhelm Wundt had now designed a clever experiment to uncover the relationship between the material world and the immaterial human mind. He had become a firm believer that the workings of our minds could not be fully understood through philosophical thought experiments. Nor did he think that the mind could be completely reduced to biology, something other prominent thinkers had already suggested. Instead, experimentation was the way to go for Wundt. Having just been recruited to a position as a “first-class chair of philosophy” at the University of Leipzig, Germany, he would create what was to become the first psychology lab in history.
In the ramshackle room on the third floor of the university building, Wundt had participants press a telegraph key as soon as they heard a simple sound. Today, we would call this a basic reaction time test. A clever timing solution ensured that he and his assistants could measure the onset of the sound and the reaction time with the accuracy of a few milliseconds. When peering over the data, Wundt found that it took around one-tenth of a second -- a mere 100 milliseconds -- from the sound was played to the participants responded. Wundt then asked participants to press the key once they became aware of the tone. Following the contemporary understanding of the human mind, this subtle change in instructions should not produce any differences in response times. But much to his surprise, Wundt found that the response time was now around 200 milliseconds. Changing the task from a reaction time task to an introspective, self-aware treatment of the sound doubled the response time!
This gave hints about the inner mechanisms of the human mind: when we observe our conscious experiences about something, even a single tone, we engage in a slightly slower process than merely responding to the sound. Consciousness, it would seem, requires time. Wundt went on to produce a massive volume of research on the human mind. At the core, he believed that he could identify the “atoms of thought” — the most basic ingredients of our mental lives. For a long time, Wundt firmly believed that the atoms of the mind could be found in these individual sensations and that the study of these would uncover the truth about the human mind.
"the human mind can hold multiple streams of processing active at any one time"
But Wundt, being a creative and agile personality, an empirical mind, and a prolific writer soon published materials contrary to this view. Critics of his papers had a hard time keeping track of his many updates. Often, a critical treatment of Wundt’s work would be waved off by Wundt himself as outdated — that paper was “so last year,” and new papers had been written that countered or updated his view. Instead of sensory atoms, Wundt came to hold the view that such impressions came compounded as imaginative representations (Vorstellungen), much akin to what later psychology would refer to as Gestalts. Instead of atoms of thoughts, Wundt’s view could possibly be better described as the “molecules of mind.”
Every second is a choice
In today’s updated psychology and neuroscience, what do we think are the molecules of the mind? What is the legacy of Wundt? Surely, we are still miles off the mark of having a firm and definite answer. In one view, we could even say that the idea was originally ill-posed. What we know today is that individual impressions are treated by our senses and can reach a certain level of response in our brains. In principle, a single photon can trigger a response in one of your eyes’ photoreceptors, leading to an activation pattern that traverses through your optic fibers back to parvo- and magnocellular cells in the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, eventually reaching your primary visual cortex, and from there spreading to a global network that, for a brief moment, shifts the global workspace of your conscious mind; producing a brief moment of awareness of that single photon, and makes that information accessible to a vast network of processing units. But it is only rarely that such a single stimulus can have this dramatic impact. More often, we find that the vast majority of sensory inputs stay at the local, sensory level, never to reach the luxury of global brain fame.
Still, these sensory responses can affect your behavior. Whether avoiding an obstacle or reaching for an item, we rarely if ever have full conscious control or access to many of the mind’s computations that help us navigate and survive. So instead of asking what the “atoms of thought” are, we could ask if the atoms should be defined as brain activation that triggers behavior, or brain activation that is related to conscious thought. Today, most could agree that one view of the “atoms” of our minds is the processes that ensure that we live, breathe, navigate, choose (without awareness) and survive. Conversely, using conscious thought as the definition of atoms of our mind seems to take a high ground that would leave only a few types of activity to meet the criterion. Having a highly complex neural process defined as the “atoms of the mind” seems to defy the purpose of the quest in the first place.
Perhaps we should rather ask: what does the brain do? In one perspective, it is a decision machine, and it works through a chaotic, uncoordinated battle for your mind and body. Some early psychologists even suggested that the mind works as a pandemonium of ideas, impressions, and impulses, where different “demons” are struggling for realization, and with only one winner for the battle of the mind. Indeed, the brain is a massively parallel system that operates as both individual processes, but also as highly dynamic, interactive orchestrated events across the organ. Today, the idea that the mind is a massively parallel system that holds a plethora of “ideas” about the world at any one time, is not far-fetched at all. Perhaps the atoms of the mind are these “demons” of thought, all haunting the mind to be realized.
Regardless of atoms and demons, the human mind can hold multiple streams of processing active at any one time. Consciously, we can only hold a few items active in our minds at any one time. But subconsciously, our brain is coordinating decisions that range from the most basic, like ensuring that your heart beats, to more dynamic ones, such as increasing the pupil dilation when you are exposed to a dangerous situation.
"a combination of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and platform scalability provides a whole new set of sources for insight"
But the choice also includes not to choose. In ancient religious writings, such as the Bhagavad Gita, it was made clear that even refraining from acting is a choice in itself. As the story goes, Prince Arjuna was just about to go to war when he realized that the opposing army included some of his family members. Arjuna flinched. How could he go to war with his kin? How could he kill them? Is it not a great sin to kill your own kin? He thought about refraining from the choice, telling himself that it would possibly be better to leave it. Was it not better, after all, not to act? Was this not a better solution? But in the story, the divine Krishna tells Arjuna that even refraining from action is a choice in itself. We may have control over our thoughts and actions, but not the consequences of our actions. Not to go to war — taking no action — would still have a path with consequences and outcomes for Arjuna.
We do not need to be situated in an ancient war facing the peril of one's kin to see how this comes to play. Every second, you are making a choice, even when abstaining from making an active movement. You are making a choice about whether to keep on reading or stop; whether to sit, lie down, or get up; whether to temporarily stop your breath or to take a deep breath; whether to think about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow; and so on. Each second holds an almost infinite array of possible actions, most of which you are currently not taking.
With this in mind, we could ask ourselves: how many decisions does the human brain do in a day? How many choices do we make every day? If we even make a relatively careful estimate and say that every waking second consists of a single choice, we would end up with about 57,600 choices per day! Most of these choices will never reach your conscious mind, but will still be acted out subconsciously as either active changes or passive “non-choices.”
The Fundamentals of Neurobehavioral Design
On a daily or weekly basis, we are bombarded by news stories about the brain. Although these news items are often “nice to know”, we also often fail to translate this to relevant insights and actions. How can we move from neuroscience stories that are merely shared as the latest fad, and into news that can inform our understanding of our choices?
Today there is still a detachment between the news about the brain and applications of neuroscience in behavioral science. As we have seen, economics and business have successfully included psychology as part of their understanding of choice. This psychology focused on behavioral and cognitive aspects (or, active and thinking). Academic and clinical psychology has also included neuroscience with great success. Indeed, the whole field of neuropsychology has long been seen to add substantial value to our understanding of the human mind.
However, in business, we seem to be focused more on the latest detached news and fads in “what the brain can do” rather than translating this into how we can use such insights, and perhaps add new tools to our toolbox. Such efforts can at best only become translational science — where we borrow insights from basic science and then try to translate this into novel insights.
A more powerful approach is to use the tools and methodologies from neuroscience to improve our measurements and understanding of the drivers of choice behaviors. As a foundational exercise, such aspects of neuroscience and can be broken down in the following sense:
- Speed: The subconscious precedes conscious choice
- Impact: Subconscious processes have a strong and direct influence on choice
- Resolution: Brain responses unfold over milliseconds
- Prediction: Subconscious brain responses predict individual and even aggregate choice
For now, what we can focus on is how we can look at how recent tools can be used to measure and understand the micro-decisions that occur.
The Tools for Measuring Microdecisions
After embracing the new view of consumer decision-making, what options do we have for measuring these micro-decisions? After all, they are short-lived, typically not consciously detected, and are only incremental steps toward a final and overt choice. Here, a combination of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and platform scalability provides a whole new set of sources for insight. Let's take them in turn:
- Measuring attention -- Using tools such as eye-tracking or Predict, it is possible to understand exactly what customers choose to pay attention to, and what they ignore or completely miss. Understanding attention is like getting a first-row seat to understand what your customers will spend time with.
- Emotional and cognitive responses -- Once something is noticed, it becomes critical to understand how they respond. Are they engaged or bored? Do they show signs of interest, comprehension, or overload and "tuning out"? Does the material trigger the right thoughts and associations?
- Understanding memory -- In the end, is your information stored and remembered? Do people remember the message, your brand, or do they merely recall some random fragment of your information?
As we see consumer choice unfolding, applied neuroscience tools are the most powerful ways to track these responses. Whether it is through an AI-driven attention prediction, implicit responses measured with global online panels, or high-end neuroscience testing in labs, these tools all give VIP access to insights into the implicit drivers of your customers' choices.