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Cognitive Seduction and the "peekaboo" law


Brains are turned on by puzzles. Brains are turned on by figuring things out. Brains are turned on by even the smallest "aha" moments. And despite what some of you (*cough* men *cough*) might believe, the brain is more turned on by seeing just the arms of a naked woman behind a shower curtain than it is by seeing all of her. So if you're trying to engage someone's brain, don't show everything. Let their brain connect the dots.

At least, that's what the neuroscientists say in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind. In their article The Neurology of Aesthetics, our favorite brain guy V.S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran describe a series of "laws" of aesthetics (they put "laws" in quotes) and how they're supported by what we know of the brain. My favorite--and one that we've been talking about (minus the festive name) for a long time here--is known as Peekaboo.

From the article:
"An unclothed person who has only arms or part of a shoulder jutting out from behind a shower curtain or who is behind a diaphanous veil is much more alluring than a completely uncovered nude. Just as the thinking parts of our brain enjoy intellectual problem solving, the visual system seems to enjoy discovering a hidden object.

Evolution has seen to it that the very act of searching for the hidden object is enjoyable, not just the final "aha" of recognition--lest you give up the chase.

Otherwise, we would not pursue a potential prey or mate glimpsed partially behind bushes or dense fog."

If something dangerous is hiding in the bushes, it's damn useful for the brain to reconstruct a complete tiger from just a few bits of orange and black peeking out between the leaves. Apparently it's all the little mini-aha moments that send messages to the brain that prompt still more searches and more mini-ahas until the final BIG aha where your brain nails it.

It goes on:

"The clever fashion designer or artists tries to evoke as many mini "ahas," ambiguities, peak shifts and pardoxes as possible in the image."

We're always trying to leave something to the reader/learner/observer's imagination. Something for them to fill in. (This relates to our earlier space between the notes post).

In my workshops and talks, I show a series of photos where things are not fully resolved... a face hidden behind a hand, a (potentially naked) woman staring intently at an object you can't quite see, the lower half of a young man suspended in air next to a tree, where you can't see the ground OR anything above his waist (is he hanging from the tree? on a trampoline? in the midst of an alien abduction?) To the brain, these "Hmmm... what's the story here?" images are virtually irresistible. The brain needs to figure it out, and enjoys the experience.

This applies to non-visual things as well, of course. In learning, the more you fill things in and hold the learner's hand, the less their brain will engage. If they don't need to fire a single neuron to walk through the tutorial, lesson, lecture, etc., they're getting a shallow, surface-level, non-memorable exposure of "covered" material, but... what's the point? Obviously this doesn't mean you just never tell them anything period. This is about graduated hints, mental teasing, cognitive treasure hunts, sparking curiosity, etc. Things that engage the brain. (This is part of the brain-friendly strategy we use in our books.)

Whether you're trying to get someone's attention, keep their attention, motivate them to stick with something, or help them to learn more deeply and retain what they've learned, leave something for their brain to resolve. Do something to turn their brain on.

[Disclaimer: this does NOT apply to something like reference docs, where you don't want their brain to become engaged. With reference material, I want to get them in and out as quickly as possible--with the accurate info they need--and where retention and recall is not a goal.]

Posted by Kathy on November 28, 2006 | Permalink


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Oh, dare I say first....

Posted by: Steven Lilley | Nov 28, 2006 4:53:20 PM

This reminds me a lot of this game and others like it, in which hardly any clues are given as to what the hell you are supposed to do, but that's exactly what makes it so engaging.

Posted by: Jake Ingman | Nov 28, 2006 4:57:19 PM

Forget neurology, the philosophers have known this since antiquity.

For a recent example: "Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes? . . . it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance." -- Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1973)

Posted by: John | Nov 28, 2006 5:57:49 PM

This is absolutely true! As a teacher, I believe it is important to teach by asking questions and allow students to formulate answers as I guide them.

That is why retention for straight lecture is practically nil but if a student does a project, they can recall what they learned years later! It is the difference between good teaching and terrible teaching.

Unfortunately, many college profs and teachers do not remember this! I love teaching but it is a tough job when done right because it means guiding and resisting the temptation to 'tell all" and take away the thrill of discovery.

Peekaboo is so true!

Posted by: Vicki Davis | Nov 28, 2006 6:15:37 PM

Absolutely true. I'm a 24-year-old male, so naturally, I am assumed to be flying off the horny-scale handle, but even during my high school years until present time, that alluring image or thought killed me more than revealing entirely everything. I think this is why when only so much is revealed, it attracts me a lot more than the person being entirely nude.

Just the thought of revelation or the hint of it is the real driving power (at least in my experiences). I would see a woman in two places: entirely nude and in a very fitting, alluring outfit (that slit up the side alongside the leg up to the upper-thigh is murder) and while she would have a knockout body nude, that teasing hint provided by the outfit drove it home better.

Posted by: Eric W. | Nov 28, 2006 6:38:25 PM

This explains why when people use *#!? instead of the actual words or bleeps them out it creates a much stronger draw than the actual unhidden words themselves.

Posted by: Scott Young | Nov 28, 2006 7:35:48 PM

Ummm, before I make a judgement could you please provide a photo of the young lady that shows, uh "...everything"?

Just for comparison, of course.

Posted by: tndal | Nov 28, 2006 7:54:20 PM

I'm just wandering if the image would be as alluring if the shower curtain was completely opaque and not a bit translucent...

Also, without scrolling back up can anyone say what was on the shower curtain?

If not, just consider it a reminder to use an appropriate image for what you are "selling"... this might be a bad choice if you were selling shower curtains.

Posted by: Graydon | Nov 28, 2006 8:35:58 PM

This article is BRILLIANT and a must read for any teacher! Nothing is worse than when you've got that zombie-syndrome going in class. We've all been there as students and it's likely that every teacher has experienced it sometime in their career. Something to grab students in and trigger them to want to learn is a great technique. And I TOTALLY agree that spoon feeding a curriculum and holding their hands every step of the way helps NONE. In fact it only enables them to become more dependent, which is why I LOVE the idea of problem based learning.

I'm constantly reminded by other instructors that though it's important to teach students, it's equally as important that they understand it's their responsibility to LEARN what's being taught. And that's where this article become a perfect fit to catching their attention and making learning more motivational.

I LOVE it!

Posted by: Amanda Kern | Nov 28, 2006 8:53:36 PM

It would've been really funny/ironic/educational if you had just posted a summary of this post, instead of the entire thing.

Posted by: Dylan Bennett | Nov 28, 2006 10:23:08 PM

A very interesting theory. Not long ago, I had attended Ramachandran's lectures on brains and how they work during a graduation ceremony (i know!) and i must say, it was one of the most interesting and attention grabbing talks I've heard in a very long time. Ramachandran is a maniac when it comes to brains, having spent a good part of his life studying and researching on the subject. Thanks for the post Kathy!

Posted by: Adel | Nov 28, 2006 10:27:22 PM

...or as Lemmy from Motorhead put it "The chase is better than the catch"....

Posted by: Chris H | Nov 28, 2006 10:54:14 PM

God! Where did you guys get all the good pictures?

Do you hire professional photographers?

Love the posts, articles, illustrations, everything on this site... 5-star superthumbs up!!! :-)

Posted by: Hendy Irawan | Nov 28, 2006 11:13:23 PM

The peekaboo theory relates to incongruency theory and brand names. If the name of your company or product is too descriptive, it fails to engage the customer's mind.

Posted by: Roger L. Cauvin | Nov 28, 2006 11:37:41 PM

The same could be said about music as well...a bit of novel ambiguity in chord structure or in the lyrics,
which bugs someone like Bob Dylan when fans misinterpret the words to his songs.

Posted by: Eljay Ess | Nov 28, 2006 11:39:11 PM

This reminds me of an interview with the director of a-ha's "Take On Me" video I saw back in the '80s. As well as the technical innovation of the video his key objective was to make more of the band members by showing less of them, thereby generating increased interest to know and see more of them.

Posted by: Derek Pollard | Nov 29, 2006 2:00:40 AM

I think this also explains why you miss people after not seeing them in a while. Bits and pieces of what it feels like to be around them start to go away, and as you obsess on searching your memories to build the full picture of who they are, it makes you think "if only I could see them right now."

Same goes for love. In a lot of cases, "falling in love" consists of work you do on your own reflecting back.

And even Ernest Hemingway built his novels around the "iceberg principle", where only the tip, above water, was told, and the huge mass underwater was implied:

"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing." -Ernest Hemingway, "Death in the Afternoon"

Posted by: Michel Parisien | Nov 29, 2006 4:07:20 AM

The costume designer of the original Star Trek added his own twist to this same psychology. The female love interests would often be wearing quite a lot of clothing (this was the 60s when the law was still quite strict on what could be shown on TV), so he would not only reveal just enough flesh (as the article above mentions) but also make it look as if the clothes might just fall off at any moment.

As a result, many men remember the Star Trek women as being scantily clad - in actual fact, they were anything but :-)

Posted by: Aidan | Nov 29, 2006 5:24:16 AM

Pretty interesting topic. We included it and your Post in our Corporate Blog.

Spreadshirt Blog Germany

Cheers Christian

Posted by: Christian | Nov 29, 2006 7:52:14 AM

Great post as always!

Interesting as the peekaboo factor is by itself (and I love difficult puzzles and intellectual challenges), it also takes me to wanting the next level of involvement, which hinges on suspense, and, in a 'story' context, conflict. The enhancement of curiosity to discover the parts that are hidden with what she/you/I will do or say next and in response, is downright irresistable.


Posted by: Vera Bass | Nov 29, 2006 8:43:35 AM

Allowing us to imagine what is behind the curtain is more alluring because what we are imagining is almost always BETTER than what is actually underneath.

Posted by: Sean Connolly | Nov 29, 2006 10:56:52 AM

I have noticed that some major advertisers do this.

I have seen billboards and ads where the font is "so big" that the brand name gets cut off:


When I saw them, I thought it was brilliant, because my brain then automatically completed the full brand name.

Posted by: Tom | Nov 29, 2006 10:57:38 AM

Speaking of being interested in the chase:


"Everything beautiful about the Nintendo Wii can be summed up in one embodiment: The Help Cat . Living deep within the Photo Channel, this is my 2007 vote for the greatest, weirdest, most terriblewonderful User Interface Design idea of all time — contextual help you have to catch. Something about this is so totally Nintendo, totally ridiculous, and totally a great use of the Wii Remote. While we're easily amused, make no mistake, people: we spent five minutes having fun just trying to catch a cat that gives you help. What more can be said about the Nintendo Wii?

Posted by: Neil | Nov 29, 2006 1:35:56 PM

Vera's comment led me to realise the peekaboo factor is at work here, in the blog and the comments. What else is said if I come back to morrow or scroll down just a little more? Sometimes the anticipation is better than the reality, and sometimes the reality leaves anticipation gasping. Which, naturally, leads to further anticipation and more scrolling.

Does this help explain the popularity of blogs and online forums?

Posted by: Tim | Nov 29, 2006 4:30:04 PM

Did you say something?

Posted by: Doug Karr | Nov 29, 2006 7:29:36 PM

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