Active Mirror Neurons Credit: treehugger.com
Of all corporate activities, marketing has perhaps the most to gain from the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Marketing’s core activities are understanding customer needs, matching them to products and services, and persuading people to buy. Adding Neuroscience with the knowledge gained by observing the brain activity of mirror neurons, enhances empathetic marketing and consumer engagement. A well-crafted marketing narrative sparks emotions and appeals to consumers’ deeply ingrained social instincts to forge lasting connections with a brand.
Functionality of Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons are a type of brain cells that are activated when someone is performing a task while, at the same time, observing someone close by performing that same task. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the brains of macaque monkeys in the 1990s. Since then, the same neurons have been identified in the brains of humans as well. This discovery received plenty of attention in the scientific community when many researchers began to argue that mirror neurons were a cornerstone of human social skills, particularly in generating empathy. However, the significance of human mirror neurons and in some cases their very existence is being questioned as some scientists argue that many of the findings have been overhyped or misconstrued. Yet, for many, mirror neurons could be the missing puzzle piece, providing scientists with a ‘unifying framework’ to help explain our capacity for imitation, empathy, theory of mind, and other unique human skills. Researchers have also provided theories linking deficiencies in mirror neurons to mental health or developmental disorders, including schizophrenia and autism. Individual mirror neurons were first identified in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal lobule of the macaque brain. Similar findings soon followed with other animals. Studies on humans have generally been less definitive than those done on animals because it is substantially more difficult to record the activity of a single neuron in human brains. New studies analysing brain activity with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI),however, have identified regions of the human brain that appear to behave like the macaques’ mirror neurons.
Mirror Neurons Support the Development of Social Skills
Throughout history, people have shared the tradition of storytelling. The reason supporting this fact could be hidden deep in our psyche – a hard-wired part of the brain that helps people relate to others. Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist at the University Medical Center of Groningen in the Netherlands, recently tested whether mirror neurons can also internalize the sensations of others. His research team placed several individuals in an fMRI machine to observe which regions of the brain are activated at any given point in time as a team member touched either the individuals’ leg or the leg of someone else sitting nearby. Several areas in the brain were activated during both the sensation of touch and the simple observation of touching another person, suggesting that mirror neurons exist both for actions like grasping as well as for sensation. Analysing these results, the researchers wondered if mirror neurons might play a role in something more subjective like experiencing an emotional response. In the case of a knife slicing into someone’s finger, Christian Keysers explained, that the individual observing this might feel the cold metal of the knife as it cuts the skin of the other individuals’ finger as well. Watching someone experience cutting his finger, might lead to a response whereby many of us instinctively grab our own finger, wincing in pain as though we have been cut as well. The ability to share in others’ emotions might explain this phenomena as Keysers concluded that “There is something magical in…us that allows us to intuitively understand other people. There is some part of the brain that interprets body language, effortlessly and instantly.” Understanding the emotions and intentions of others is crucial for developing social skills and interpersonal relationships. The presence of mirror neurons underscores how social abilities are essential for survival. A disruption of that process in the brain may play a role in psychological disorders like autism or Asperger’s syndrome. As a result, it seems that diseases that inhibit a person’s ability to express and understand emotions are often crippling them socially as well.
Mirror Neurons to Enhance AI-based Marketing Strategies
The discovery of the mirror neuron opens new opportunities for the support of entirely new AI-based marketing strategies and activities. These neurons are providing a neural foundation for understanding others’ actions and empathy from an inside perspective. This unique ability is believed to be a critical evolutionary adaptation that has allowed species to live together in complex social groups. Essentially, mirror neurons form a bridge between empathetic marketing strategies and consumer engagement, stimulating an ‘internal cinema’ that projects observed experiences onto our own cognitive landscape. When we – as consumers – see others enjoying a product or service, our mirror neurons are activated. They cause us to ‘experience’ the joy and satisfaction the other person is feeling. This is what makes testimonials and influencer marketing so effective. We see others benefitting from a product and our brains instinctively tell us that we can have the same enjoyable experience. Hence, understanding mirror neurons can open new doors by making a product or service more relatable and ultimately more appealing to consumers. By mirroring others’ actions in our brain, we can better understand their intentions and thereby foster smoother social communication. This fundamental aspect of human nature greatly influences how we form relationships and navigate through our social environments. From a consumer behaviour perspective, mirror neurons act as a conduit between empathetic connections and purchase decisions. When we observe others enjoying a product, our mirror neurons fire, inducing a desire to replicate their experience. A study published in the prestigious journal ‘Neuron’ found that the activation of specific brain areas associated with reward anticipation could predict purchase decisions. This supports the idea that when consumers watch advertisements with people expressing positive emotions about a product, their own emotional responses echo those observed, which has been linked to an increased likelihood of purchase. By embedding products or services in narratives that evoke emotion, marketers can trigger mirror neurons, enhancing emotional engagement and encouraging a positive brand association.
Implementing Mirror Neurons in AI-based Marketing Activities
With an understanding of mirror neurons and their role in shaping consumer behaviour, marketers can design campaigns that resonate with consumers on an emotional level. This involves crafting authentic narratives that reflect consumers’ experiences or aspirations and to analyse the data of their response with Large Language Models (LMMs), Machine Learning or Generative AI applications. Furthermore, incorporating relatable characters that consumers can empathize with, can heighten the effectiveness of marketing content. For example, Apple’s ‘Picture taken with an iPhone’ campaign showcased user-generated photos and videos, reflecting relatable experiences and emotions. By providing an avenue for consumers to see others like them enjoying their product, Apple capitalized on the mirror neuron phenomenon, leading to increased engagement and product interest. Looking ahead, the potential for integrating mirror neuron research into marketing is immense. With the rise of immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality, there are more opportunities than ever to craft experiential narratives that activate mirror neurons and foster deep consumer engagement. Moreover, as our understanding of mirror neurons and their impact on consumer behaviour deepens, we can expect to see even more personalized and empathetically-driven marketing strategies. Such strategies will not only be geared toward selling products or services but also towards forging lasting emotional connections with consumers and their ideas about the design of new products. This trend is driven by an enormous exponentially growing effort of neuroscience research to better understand the functionality of the human brain.
The discovery of mirror neurons has led to the assumption that these neurons are responsible for a wide array of social behaviors, from imitating someone else’s actions and to feeling empathy with someone’s suffering or joy. Adding this knowledge to AI supported marketing activities might add substantial value to consumer relations and improve the design of new products. However, some claims about the positive impact of mirror neurons have yet to be substantiated by research. Their discovery represents just a small piece of a puzzle which might eventually lead to a comprehensive theory about brain functionality. Realistically we are probably at least a decade away reaching this milestone in AI development and brain research.