Race to The Bottom of The Brainstem

Emotion evolved far before abstract thinking. Emotion is primal, coming from the deepest, oldest part of the brain, the brainstem.

The newest part of the brain, the neocortex, contains areas devoted to abilities that are enhanced in or unique to humans, such as complex language processing and abstract thinking. In many ways, it is what makes us human.

Yet in recent times, a transition has started happening. Technology is increasingly shifting away from trying to capture human attention through complex thinking, to through emotion instead.

A race to the bottom of the brainstem.

1. Advertising:

The marketing firm Yankelovich, has claimed that the average American saw 500 advertisements a day in 1970. In 2006, as much as 5000 day. According to Red Crow Marketing Inc., the current figure is between 4,000 – 10,000. Clearly we see more ads now than any other time in history. Because we don’t have the time and energy to consciously and effortfully evaluate every single advertisement, we instead often decide how to spend our money based on feeling. [radio with ad box (as a comic speaking bubble)]

We like to think we consciously make purchasing decisions through reasoning and rationality. By comparing prices, quality and preferences. In reality, a lot of what we buy is influenced by emotion.

For instance, in a study of cereal, researchers found that cereals where the mascot looks directly at the customer, as opposed to elsewhere, have higher brand appeal. Of course, where the mascot looks says nothing about price or quality. Nevertheless, customers react more positively because of the FEELING it gives them. 

Consider YouTube Thumbnails. A thumbnail is essentially an advertisement for a video. Do you notice a trend? Faces, especially overly expressional faces, in the thumbnail. Why? Simply because human faces evoke emotions, that increases clickability, similar to how cereal mascots increase cereal appeal. 

Youtubers are increasingly putting faces in their thumbnails, because even clearly well-designed thumbnails, that convey high-quality, creativity, and that a lot of work went into the video, often does not even compete with thumbnails that evoke emotions. Even thumbnails that are CLEARLY clickbait draw more views, because despite us logically knowing that the contents of the video probably doesn’t match the thumbnail, we decide to click based on feelings.

Humans respond more to emotion than logic.

2. Entertainment:

a. The Loudness War

There’s a war going on that you may not even be aware about. It’s called the loudness war. Music has gotten increasingly louder and louder over the years. Now, digital music has a clearly defined maximum peak amplitude, that volume cannot exceed. What musicians can do however, is increase the volume of the more quiet PARTS of their songs, so that the AVERAGE volume increases.

This is despite the criticism that increasing song volume, objectively makes songs worse, because it decreases the dynamic range of the song. Simply put, the argument goes as follows: making the quietest parts of the song louder, DECREASES the range of possible sounds. Whereas classical songs use the entire spectrum of volume, modern artists may only use the loudest 80 or 70%. The last 20-30% simply represent creative freedom that more artists nowadays do not exercise.

So why is this happening? One thought is simply that louder music evokes stronger emotions. So if society is increasingly listening to music based on dumbed down feelings, instead of sophisticated evaluation, then it makes sense to prioritize volume over expanded creative expression. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Music has also, measurably, gotten more repetitive.

Most listeners will not be able to remember, or even recognize complex lyrics. As a result, the “catchiest” songs will be those with the simplest, and consequently most memorable, lyrics that people can sing along to. This often means using the same simple chorus over and over. 

Another trick I am also noticing now more than ever, is that songs begin with the chorus. Classically, songs will begin slowly, build up the tension and anticipation, before finally realising the emotions in the chorus. Many modern artists put the chorus in the beginning of their songs instead. This increases repetitiveness as well.

Artists make their music loud and repetitive in order to cut through the noise and reach an audience, but at the same time, they’re adding to the very noise that makes it hard to stand out.

b. The Excitement War

Whilst music is getting louder and louder, a similar YouTube phenomena is taking place. Youtubers are acting more and more excited in their videos. It’s not a trendy fad; they’re doing it because it works. It doesn’t matter if they’re irrationally excited about some mundane thing. Their excitement doesn’t NEED to make logical sense, because it evokes the EMOTIONs in the audience that make them stay watching the video.

It doesn’t matter you say, it matters how you say it. 

3. News

News needs to be increasingly sensationalized, cherry-picked, and exaggerated in order to grab readers’ and viewers’ attention. This is problematic because it paints a distorted view of reality. 

For example, terrorism makes up less than 0.01% of deaths in US, yet makes up 33.3% of reported deaths by the guardian, and 35.6% in The New York Times. Meanwhile, the world’s leading cause of death, heart disease, which is responsible for 30.2% of US deaths, is only 2.1% (guardian) and 2.5% of reported deaths respectively. 

Bill Gates has commented on these statistics, saying “I’m always amazed by the disconnect between what we see in the news and the reality of the world around us.”

Acts of terrorism elicts emotion, and make for memorable events. They are accompanied by powerful imagery and impactful videos. Articles about them are consequently more clickable than something like heart disease – which is more abstract, a medical term, that most of us don’t fully understand.

Emotion is what drives mainstream viewer- and readership, not sophisticated writing and presentation. Not everybody has the time, energy, or willingness to apply critical thinking, and deeply analyse what they learn from news – So they settle instead on judging things based on how they “Feel about it”.

This is a problem because feelings of fear and anger tend to be more powerful than optimism and joy. Researchers in China analyzed a twitter-like service, Weibo, and determined the sentiment of each tweet in their database by analyzing the emoticons they contained. They divided these into four categories: joy, sadness, anger or disgust. What they found was that angry tweets were far more likely to spread than other tweets. When it comes to the spread of information, anger is the most powerful emotion.

This is because humans are evolutionarily wired to look for potential dangers in the environment. Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger were more likely to survive, and subsequently to pass on their genes. This “negativity bias” stems from the older, primordial parts of our brain.

And the antidote to negativity bias may lie in using our newer brain, the neocortex, by applying critical thinking and knowledge. Consider this following experiment: 

26,489 people across 28 countries were quizzed about their knowledge of global development. They were also asked “Over the next 15 years, do you think people around the world will be better off or worse off?”.  What the survey found was that the people who knew the most about global development were far more likely to be optimistic about the future, than those with little or no knowledge.

Participants with zero correct answer had limited knowledge, and instead judged the question based on emotion, and subsequently fell back to negativity bias.

52% of people believe the following statement to be true: “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has increased” – When in fact, the opposite is true. The share of people living in extreme poverty across the world has been declining for two centuries, and in the last 20 years this positive development has been faster than ever before.

They say “Ignorance is bliss”, but in many ways, Knowledge is bliss. Because when you lack knowledge, you tend to overestimate the negative.


Advertising, Entertainment and the news try to capture the attention of the masses, by appealing to the primal, emotion-based, parts of our brain. Often this is achieved by dumbing down content, increasing repetitiveness and exaggerating danger.

There’s more to keep track of now than ever before, there’s more music to choose from, there’s more advertising around us and there’s more news to keep up with – so it’s impossible to have a sophisticated opinion about everything. We end up judging a lot of things merely because of how we feel about them. That is OK when it comes to things like entertainment. You don’t need to have a reason why you like a particular song, or be able to explain exactly why you hate a certain movie. But when it comes to the issues that actually matter: politics, news, and the world situation, it’s ok to say: “I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that” – instead of judging based on your instinctive emotions.

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