Primer on the Senses

We traditionally refer to five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. But it’s not that simple. Our new primer, on the senses, delves into the complex systems that enable us to connect to the world.

It’s a dynamic process. The brain is not simply a receiving station for sensory signals, and what we see, hear, and feel are constantly shaped by emotions, memories, moods, and beliefs. Our sense of the world is a creation of the brain, and the same physical sensation may be experienced quite differently at different times of life, and even from day to day.

Read Part I of the primer now; Part II will post on the Dana Foundation homepage on Monday, August 26.

– Ann L. Whitman

How Theatrical Lighting Creates Illusion

We’re in the final month of Brainwave at The Rubin Museum in New York, which this year brings together artists and neuroscientists to explore the idea of illusion in different contexts. Sunday evening’s program, held in partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, will pair Tony Award lighting designer Jules Fisher with Harvard vision expert and Dana Alliance member Margaret Livingstone, Ph.D. They will discuss how Fisher’s techniques create illusions. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Dr. Livingstone has studied how the visual system processes different artistic aspects, including form, color, depth, and movement. To learn more, read our 2006 interview “Visual System Processing and Artistic Genius.”

– Ann L. Whitman

Sensory Tour at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

The first ever “Sensory Tour: Immersed in Nature” took place last night at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Several staff members from the museum’s education department put together a tour that explores how sight, smell and touch are used when viewing art. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect since I’ve been to the museum on many occasions and have seen most of the artwork, but I was excited to be a member of this inaugural tour. I had been told by a co-worker that sensory tours often include participants getting placed in a dark room for an extended period of time, but I was assured by the tour guide that this would not happen.

Our first stop was in front of a 19th century painting of a table with fruit and a glass of wine in the middle that had a dark background; I had seen similar pieces in people’s homes. After a few moments, all participants were given a piece of fruit that is seen in the painting. This completely changed my interpretation of the painting. After holding, touching, and smelling the peach I was given, I looked back in the painting and felt like the fruit was real, and I could sense the smell of grapes and oranges and even taste the wine in the center. The picture no longer appeared drab; it all became real.

My brain was also telling me that I was craving fruit, which was not the case before the peach was placed in my hand. We also listened to classical music as we held the fruit and looked at the painting. With three of my senses activated, my mind transformed me to a party where I was picking fruit so real that I could taste it.

The second stop was on the same floor, but this was in the Centennial Room, which houses turn-of-the-century art. We examined a life-sized white marble statue of a nude woman holding a child. Pieces of the marble were passed around, which allowed us to feel the texture of the statue. The third and last stop on the tour was on another floor of the museum with decorative art. The piece we explored was a mannequin wearing an elaborately decorated bodysuit with black sequins and bright red flowers on the legs. The mannequin had a metal cage over its head that was covered in flowers made of metal and other materials.

We were then given a piece of cloth similar to what the mannequin was wearing and a real flower. These objects made me visualize birds chirping and landing on the cage near the flowers. I imagined the mannequin actually walking through a forest with the flower cage on its body, surrounded by nature. We also listened to a recording of the artist explaining the concept of the art, which gave us a better sense of what his ideas were when he created the piece.

This is a great tour even for visually impaired people because they can literally feel and hear the art by using their senses to immerse themselves in the experience. Although no dates are set, the museum’s education department is considering hosting another sensory tour in the future.

–Blayne Jeffries

Neuromarketing appeals to your senses

There really is no limit to how far companies are willing to
go to get inside the heads of consumers—literally. At least, that’s the
take-home message I got from a new article
in Time about “neuroadvertising,” the
business of using new neuroscientific understanding to, well, generate more business.

Among the strategies outlined in the article: better use of
the full range of our senses. For years marketing professionals have relied on
imagery and colors to sell their products while largely ignoring the impact of
sounds, neuromarketing researcher and business consultant Martin Lindstrom says.  “Eighty-three percent of all forms of
advertising principally engage only one of our senses: sight.”

But familiar sounds can trigger equally powerful responses,
he points out. To find some of the best candidates, he has studied emotional
responses to various sounds, by monitoring brain activity, pupil dilation,
sweat responses and facial twitches.  The
noise with the biggest response? A baby’s laugh.

I’ve noticed in my own life that, while most advertisements
focus on jingles and slogans, familiar sounds can elicit a stronger reaction. I
have added several songs to my iPod after I heard them in commercials—but,
honestly, I end up forgetting the origins of the songs. The sizzling steak in
the Outback Steakhouse commercial on the other hand: Not only does it make my
mouth water—it always calls to mind the restaurant.

(This idea of consumer sensory manipulation, by the way
reminds me of the previous attempts—although possibly on the path to revival—of
smell-o-vision.  Used in movie theaters
in the 1950s, smells were released during certain sections of the movie to give
a more authentic experience. They didn’t work very well—perhaps because no
neuromarketers were on hand to guide their development.)

In the article, Read Montague, a
neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, explains why certain sensory
experiences can have such strong effects. “Cultural messages that get into your
nervous system are very common and make you behave certain ways,” he says. In
commercials that go wrong, he adds, advertisers miscue these messages. Abstract
music paired with a visually enticing picture can confuse the brain, for
instance, causing the insula and orbital frontal cortex regions to frantically
try to make sense of the stimulation.

The fuel for neuromarketing doesn’t just come from dedicated
researchers. General studies, such as those looking at the effect of competitive
and product
on consumer decision-making, also provide fodder.

As the article notes, switching off your TV is no escape; brick-and-mortar
retailers are also catching on to the trend. 
A department store in Japan has incorporated individualized soundtracks
for each department (I can only wonder what the lingerie department sounds

It seems that none of our senses are safe from marketing
efforts, so hold onto your wallet and get ready for a very stimulating future.

-Ann Whitman

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