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The Brain and Communication

Using Neuroscience to Control our Messaging

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Low Road and High Road

Every time our brain elaborates information, it can choose to follow two very distinct routes.

The low road is tied to the oldest part of the brain governing emotional responses and acting through established patterns of behavior called heuristics. These shortcuts bypass conscious reasoning and act as automatic responses to stimuli encountered before, especially in situations of stress.

On the other hand, the high road involves reasoning processes and the neo-cortex, a section of the brain which evolved more recently. While choosing this path requires more time for analysis, in comparison to the low road, it highly favors strategic thinking and decisions focused on the long-term.

The Brain and Communication

When we communicate we generate in the receiving end a prompt to interpret what is going on, either through the low road or the high road. Whoever is initiating the communication may choose to adjust its message to stimulate one road over the other.

Both the low and the high road are literally paths in our brain that are taken by the electricity carrying information through the nervous system; a middle ground between the two is physically impossible. Therefore every time our senses are pinged with information, the brain has to decide which is going to be first and preferred route to process it.

If the choice falls on the low road, the high road might process the information again if there is a conscious effort to stop and think: if the high road is taken as a first choice, there is no way to recall a low road reaction. This is why psychological tests looking for a low road reaction will usually ask to respond with the first thing that comes to mind, and as quickly as possible.

A style of communication seeking a response from the emotional brain is evocative, and its purpose is to trigger the low road and a known heuristic. This is the preferred method when the goal is to grab the attention of the receiver as quickly as possible, and convey information synthetically, rather than analytically. Facebook ads are the perfect example of where this kind of communication is required, since they need to stand out in a crowd of competing messages.

Once we click on the ad, we'll probably find some details on what attracted our attention in the first place: descriptive communication allows the high road to analyze information from a rational perspective and react to it accordingly. When pushy salespeople want you to buy now and not a second later, they are trying to prevent your high road from kicking in and finding flaws in a seemingly excellent deal.

Good storytelling occurs when evocative and descriptive moments are combined in a situation where we can both identify with the protagonist and understand what is going on.

Functions of Communication

Linguist Roman Jakobson defined six elements of communication in his Theory of Communication:

Sender/Emitter/Addresser

The origin of the communication.

Message

What we want to say (not the goal we wish to achieve).

Receiver

Who we are talking to.

Channel

Where the communication is occurring, the medium we are using to deliver our communication.

Code

How we are communicating; the language (or other form of expression) chosen to deliver our message.

Context

All the surrounding information which may influence the message.

Focus on each of these elements creates specific functions of communication:

  • Emotive (focus on the Sender): self-expression
  • Aesthetic/Poetic (focus on the Message): auto-reflection
  • Conative (focus on the Receiver): persuasion or information delivery
  • Phatic (focus on the Channel): checking of channel mechanisms
  • Metalinguistic/Reflexive (focus on the Code) : checking of code mechanisms
  • Referential (focus on Context): using the message to address something unsaid but present

Conclusions

Rem tene, verba sequentur (Grasp the subject, the words will follow)
- Cato the Elder

In order to maximize the efficiency of communication, it's important to strategically decide how to deliver a message, following simple steps:

  1. Identify the function
  2. Define the 6 listed elements
  3. According to the 6 elements, decide for analysis or synthesis, high or low road
  4. Act accordingly

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