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Monday, January 22, 2018

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The brain according to me
Tom Ahern

March, 2012

I'm not a scientist. I am a practitioner. I write, teach, and consult for a living. And I want to get good results.  


My competitive edge? I obey without question the latest discoveries of neuroscience.


Persuasion is nothing but brain on brain, after all.


Two brains are in the ring: (1) the brain of the sender; and (2) the brain of the receiver. My brain. Your brain. 


And (as a marketer) I dearly want your brain to decide: "Yes!!! I will" ...


... give for the first time; give again; switch to monthly giving; buy a ticket; become a member; volunteer; sign a petition; sponsor a child; tour; host; or otherwise act on my charity's behalf.


Brain on Brain


So, what do I know about your brain? 


I know, for instance, that the human brain actually takes physical pleasure in making gifts to charity. The magazine Science reported that particular University of Oregon research back in 2007, and the press picked it up.


Yes, giving LITERALLY feels good. And I'm talking dopamine good. MRIs and other modern imaging technologies show us it is so. We are in a Golden Age of Persuasion, because science has so much to tell us.




Here follows my "sort of scientific" tour of the brain; subject to rapid change, as new information becomes available. These are the concepts I use on a daily basis... 


All Hail the Lizard Brain.


Also known as the amygdala. Correctly pronounced something like: a-MIG-de-llah. NOT pronounced (as I've said into microphones for years until recently): ah-mig-DAL-hah, like some Star Wars princess. 


Dubbed the "lizard brain" (see Seth Godin), it's the original brain you crawled from the swamp with. In the adult human, it's about the size of two ripe cherries, near the base of your skull. 


The amygdala is your original brain. And it's still running a lot of the show.


The amygdala is all about fear. It's your species' onboard warning system. It tries to make you notice the things that are new in your environment.


To the amygdala, "new" represents opportunity. Opportunity to survive. Opportunity to thrive. Your amygdala's radar asks the same two questions over and over: Will it kill me? Can I eat it? It notices the NEW and dismisses the FAMILIAR ... because anything new in the environment could be a potential threat. Or a meal. 


Tell me something I don't know? My amygdala tells me to pay attention.


Tell me something I already know? My amygdala says I can safely ignore it.


Bottom line: you cannot bore me and expect to win my interest. The Lizard Brain says you can't. 


Emotions made me do it.


Sometimes I think, "This is just too easy."


The direct mail industry has been around pretty much since the advent of postal routes. Which is a long time: Ben Franklin became America's first postmaster general in 1775.


Over time, the direct mail industry - which has always attracted bright minds because there is so much money to be made - reached consensus on certain things. Among them: which emotional triggers are especially good at eliciting response. Seven industry favorites, in alpha order: anger, exclusivity, fear (hello again, amygdala), flattery, greed, guilt, and salvation.


Brain science has in the last few decades confirmed the direct mail industry's full faith in emotional triggers. Neuroscientist Antoine Bechara declared in 2006 that the "popular notion ... that logical, rational calculation forms the basis of sound decisions ... [is] wrong and [has] no scientific basis...." 


Science now knows that every human decision begins in the brain's emotional seat (the gray matter in the front), not in the so-called "seat of reason" (the gray matter in the middle). 


The ancient dualistic concept that emotions and reason wrestle for dominance throughout a human's life is mistaken. There is no duality. Emotions definitively rule.


The implications for fundraising are obvious. Don't try to REASON people into giving you money. It's a dry hole. Attempt to hook their emotions instead. That's where the action is.


And literally so. To paraphrase Canadian neurologist Donald Calne, author of Within Reason: Rationality and Human Behavior -- reason leads to thinking, while emotion leads to action.


In fundraising, action is generally our goal. As a fundraiser, I don't care all that much if you "think" about the cause. I do care that you are moved enough to lend a hand: make a gift, etc.


I think the bromide that you "educate" people into becoming your supporters places far too much emphasis on reasoned analysis and statistical evidence. 


In fact - and this is fascinating - the more you try to introduce reason (facts and figures) into the discussion, the less money you raise.


Distinguished Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics, Dan Ariely, has demonstrated that stories raise far more in charity than statistics can ... and in fact that statistics, by their mere presence, may dampen the giving instinct. 


Narrative: It's how the brain is wired


A last tidbit: Why tell stories? Because science says you ought to.


It turns out that the easiest, fastest way for the human brain to understand anything new is by hearing a story that illustrates the point.


Your brain is hard-wired to learn through storytelling.


Your brain is not hard-wired to learn through statistics. 


For your reading list... 


Read the findings of academic team Drs. Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang. Their research aims to investigate some of fundraising's dearly held "truths." 


Of course, it's the work of a lifetime. Fundraising has more myths, spooks, and hobgoblins than a Halloween haunted house.


The fundraising industry, science shows, accepts a lot as gospel when it isn't even close to truth. 


Read more of Tom Ahern's musings at


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