Research: Pain triggers memory in the same way as great advertising

20 May

Related imageToday, NPR reported on the link between pain and emotion in a segment titled “How The Brain Shapes Pain And Links Ouch With Emotion.” The heart of the story is new research that explains the evolutionary origin of the link between physical pain and emotion.

According to researchers, two things happen when we feel physical pain. First, we physically feel the pain when heat, force, or chemicals trigger nerve endings (nocicepters) in the effected part of the body. The feeling of pain is to warn you of the danger — to get you to immediately pull your hand out of the fire or to escape whatever is causing you bodily injury. It’s a quick response as nerves send messages up your spinal cord to your brain.

The second thing that happens is interesting: when the body feels pain, it often triggers emotions such as sadness, anger, or depression. Once the pain signals reach the brain, it stirs up a complex set of responses, often including deep emotions or feeling of suffering. Why does this happen? According to Robin Crook, a brain researcher and biologist who has been studying this, “Having that emotional component linked to the sensory experience really is a great enhancer of memory. [With this mechanism] humans, for example, can remember a single painful experience sometimes for their entire lives.”

Here is the fascinating thing not covered in the NPR segment: this is a great example of the brain evolving to trick itself into memory creation using the same mechanisms that modern advertisers tap into. Research on advertising is very clear: emotional advertising outperforms rational advertising because we’re more likely to remember something when it is linked to a feeling or emotion. In other words, we remember the ads that make us laugh or cry. When an advertiser pulls at our heartstrings, research shows we’re more likely to retain the ad or brand in our head for a long time.

While there is lots of evidence to show the link between emotion and memory in advertising, it is fascinating to see the brain use the very same mechanisms to make sure that we don’t repeat the actions that once caused us pain.

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