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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

NeuroConservation: The Battle for the Brains

wallacejnichols.org

Were you paying attention during the presidential election?  Obama’s team combined brilliant, resonant language with an appealing patriotically-hued "O" logo and impeccable social networking tools for fundraising, messaging and get-out-the-vote. They topped it all with follow-up communications with a personal flair. Using the tools of modern marketing better than anyone imagined possible, they put a long-shot candidate in the White House.

The Obama campaign tapped into a phenomenon that marketers (and more than a few “instinctive” politicians) have long known: that decisions are driven not by rationality but by emotion.  And, sometimes, when the stars align, emotions produce elections of unlikely candidates.

However, did you know that “smaller” everyday acts can trigger the very same mirror neurons, like those that produce yawns when we see others yawn, and dopamine rushes, like those that follow pleasurable experiences, as voting for a charismatic candidate? Acts as simple as declining a plastic bag at the checkout counter, or spending an hour cleaning a beach, or buying local, or hopping on a commuter train.  Science shows that when we participate in activities we think are “cool,” we feel cool and a rush follows.  These acts carry an additional bonus in that there’s no credit card bill pending (nor years shackled to a blundering president).  In the end, the earth is healthier for it.

Brain science has taken some exciting leaps forward recently and, in the coming decade, we expect increasingly mind-blowing research and insights.  Like it or not, according to the new book “Buyology” by Martin Lindstrom, technologies like MRIs and brain scans are now a fixture of politics and consumerism in the U.S.  Lindstrom points to new research that describes all decisions as emotional, makes clear links between left/right brains and left/right politics, and shows that fear-based anti-smoking campaigns may actually increase desire to light up. Combine brainscoping with new social marketing tools, toss in a 100 million dollars or so and you've got millions craving Coke, iPods, SUVs, and all things Obama.

Here's the good news. When not wedded to science for science’s sake, leading neuroscientists believe in improving the human condition through better understanding of how the brain works. My advice to to a new graduate student would be to get a degree in Neuroscience, with one foot in Environmental Studies and the other in Communications/Marketing. If I could create my own program, I’d call it NeuroConservation.

These same insights about our emotional brains and social networking tools that major corporations and campaigns are using to drive our decision-making are available to the conservation community as we try to head off the looming environmental catastrophe.  First, we need to let go of some things we thought we knew, we need to use the new tools at our disposal wildly, and we must share what works with everyone who’ll listen. 

For those of us working in the environmental field there is promise. We can harness mirror neurons and dopamine rushes for the good of the planet. Neuroscience offers great hope: positive emotion trumps fear, inclusive beats exclusive, and short-and-emotional tops lengthy-and-rational. The eco-community, however, is not learning these lessons.

Case in point: many eco-orgs use nearly identical unimaginative, unemotional taglines, slogans and logos.  In a single month, I encountered no less than eight ocean protection organizations using some version of the phrase "sea change.”  Logos melt together in a swirl of blue, green, ocean animals, and wave motifs. It’s like showing up for the prom in the exact same dress as all the other girls.  Oops.

The similarity suggests unfamiliarity with the latest in brainwork and hints at the lack of collaboration between groups.  Don’t get me wrong; I'm an avid supporter of several of the groups. Perhaps it's just that originality in the sector is just too risky.  If true, that’s sad and we all lose in the end.

So, here's the plan.  If you are a role model to someone (anyone!) or possess an ounce of cool, it's time to flex it for the planet.  Be seen, be proud, and strut your LIVBLUE street-cred wherever you are.  Say things like, "Dude those reusable shopping bags and water bottles are so cool" or "Riding the metro rocks!" or "Eating local, organic food is awesome!"  And remember, when you say it, say it real loud so people can HEAR you. 

Let your passion show. Creatively share messages by email, Facebook, YouTube, company listservs and Twitter.  Share what works and what doesn't, widely and wildly. Let’s give preachitivity and eco-fact-itude a break and try some NeuroConservation and social-network-iness for a change.

Let’s not confuse NeuroConservation with the shallow trends of fashion or music.  Think of it more in terms of the un-evolution (the “re-volution”?) of our wasteful, disposable, plastic-ridden past through cutting-edge science and technology. By making living blue super cool, we can make living brown uncool.  One brain at a time.
 
“Our national obsession with buying and consuming is just going to escalate as marketers become better and better at targeting our subconscious wishes and desires.”
–Martin Lindstrom, Buyology
 
“The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society.” 
-Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

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