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Getting past the brain's crap filter.

Your brain didn't come with a manual. Brain_1And 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.

Posted by Kathy on December 22, 2004 | Permalink


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» Getting past the brain's crap filter. from i-node one
Okay, so this site leans toward marketing schtuff but a couple of the entries are interesting for the non-marketing info they contain. This entry and the next have links to two that I've found today. Creating Passionate Users: Getting past the bra... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 24, 2004 9:30:19 PM

» Getting past the brain's crap filter from Willem Odendaal
Getting past the brain's crap filter [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 30, 2004 12:37:10 AM

» How to remember and be remembered from Denis Koelewijn
[Read More]

Tracked on Dec 30, 2004 1:22:05 AM

» How to remember and be remembered from Denis Koelewijn
[Read More]

Tracked on May 23, 2005 1:31:56 AM

» For Better Marketing, Get Past the Crap Filter from Smart Marketing
I spent sometime recently at the Creating Passionate Users blog because I found some useful posts about how to be a better trainer (thanks Kathy Sierra). In one of her posts, Kathy talks about the "Crap Filter" in our brains. It's our brain's way of he... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 21, 2006 6:00:13 AM


Very intresting article. Gives you something to think about...

Posted by: Tyler | Jan 17, 2005 6:40:45 AM

This is kind of gratuitous of me to point out, but one of the trackbacks cuts off at "Getting past the bra" ... now you can see what *my* filters allow to pass through, heh.

Posted by: AcouSvnt | Jan 26, 2005 3:08:59 PM

Sweet! I would give, like, anything to be able to claim that I had something to DO with that...
Regardless of what brought you here, we're just happy to have you ; ) I promise there will be at least one lingerie-related post in the near future.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 26, 2005 3:26:17 PM

There I was, goofing off at work, surfing the web, going from one blog to the next. "I should be teaching everyone in production about the new method of serializing product instead of doing this," I admonish myself. But then I shot back, "So what? No one listens to me, anyway. Bugger off."

That was the "ah-ha" moment. No one listens to me.

And that was while I was reading, "Getting past the brain's crap filter."

There's a reason no one listens to me (or reads what I write.) It's not their fault. They're not the ones who have to change. It's *me*. I have to change. I have to speak and write in such a way that people will listen and read and understand. I have to get past their crap filters.

It occurred to me that in order to imprint my ideas on the manufacturing folks, I'd have to be off-the-wall.

Why arrange a tedious meeting in a stuffy, over-crowded room when I can (hopefully) produce an infectiously funny email that a few people might read quickly right away, generate discussion, and get everyone talking and thinking about?

So I did.


Posted by: TimeGhost | Feb 4, 2005 2:46:23 PM

I love this sitE

Posted by: Garrett | Mar 26, 2005 6:39:56 PM

I love this site too :)

Posted by: deaf | May 6, 2005 12:26:42 AM

For the love of all that's good... It looks like someone's anti blogspam set-up isn't working.

Posted by: Matt Moran | May 20, 2005 7:18:03 AM

So I know this comment is from way way back, but I ended up here by linking from your Ten Tips entry so I decided to start at the beginning. I'm a Trainer at my current place of employment (have been for a year and still learning of course), and I am just going into my first semester in the Teaching Certification program at university. My field has nothing to do with marketing, but I think you have a lot of interesting things to say so you may see my comments popping up here and there throughout your archive.

Posted by: Becca | Sep 10, 2006 5:09:01 AM

Stumbled onto your block while searching from info on PowerPoint presentations (I seem to remember) and I LOVE IT!

I enjoy the quirky pictures. Where do you find them and what program do you use to edit them? They add a LOT to the posts.

Anyway, Keep me posted!

Posted by: Tom | May 23, 2007 4:51:48 PM

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