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The Psychology Papers: Part IV

scrollAmadeus and the Amygdala


Amadeus, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to give him his full name, Beethoven, and other composers have much to thank the amygdala for, as do members of the advertising professions. Why this should be so is made clear in the following discussion.

Mo'zart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-91). Austrian composer of symphonies, chamber-music and operas, as 'Figaro', 'Don Giovanni', 'The Magic Flute'.

Members of the human species spend much of their time thinking, musing, reflecting and daydreaming. This intellectual overseer leads to an assumption that they are in conscious control of their destiny. In other words, that thought prevails over emotions. This unfortunately is far from true, especially where responses to imagery is concerned. And ads are, of course, just a specialised form of imagery.

Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827). German composer of Flemish descent; worked mainly in Vienna; contributed much to the development of the symphony and other musical forms; wrote nine symphonies, an opera, many pianoforte sonatas, string quartets, and other orchestral and chamber music; during his later years he was stone deaf..

animated Beethoven

Gut reactions are the primary response to images and cognitive appreciation of the felt content comes a poor second. The reasons for this deviation from commonsense appreciation of function is that there are two pathways from the eye to the visual centers of the brain.

One route is short and fast, via the amygdala, a portionof the brain concerned with emotional responses. It plays a dominant role in responses to sensory stimuli and its evolutionary function was to detemine threat and, when necessary, prepare the body to 'fight or flight'. The amygdala still retains its primary role when we respond to external environmental cues or signals. Whether these arise from viewing a face, a work of art or an advert, the amygdal is the key to our response. It has a 'tuned in' quality of emotional synchrony, to use the words of Ann M.S. Barry, author of Visual Intelligence.

Link to Barry's book on visual intelligence.Barry notes that 'until recently it was generally believed that information from the senses first travelled to the sensory neocortex (part of the 'modern' brain concerned with higher evolutionary functions), to the cortical association areas, then to the subcortical brain, then to the musculoskeletal system, the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system. In other words the newer areas of the brain (in evolutionary terms) dominated the proceedings. Emotion, it was believed, came after conscious and unconscious thought processes.

More recent research clearly indicates that the amygdala plays a crucial role in responding to information about the external world as obtained through our senses. The amygdala attaches emotional significance to incoming information and prepares the body to act, well before conscious appraisal is possible. The amygdala responds to both conscious and nonconscious information input and this is taken that it may be the centre for the integration of emotional learning.

The second pathway through the brain is relatively slow. Additionally, the portion of the brain dealing with this 'slow motion' imput is also influenced by output from the emotional centre receipt centre in the Amygdala. Sensory input from the eye travel first to the thalamus and then to the amygdala before a second signal travels to the neocortex, the seat of thinking. The implications of such a process is that we begin to respond emotionally before we can think about an issue. It may even mean that much of what we think of as decision making is simply rationalisation of unconscious processes. However, we need not take such an extreme view where responses to imagery is concerned. Here it is sufficient to acknowledge that emotional response precedes cognitive appreciation.

When not 'over-run' by emotions it is probably more accurate to state that although we are cognitive beings, reason and emotions both have crucial roles to play. Initial emotional reactions to visual input 'point us in the right direction' by tapping into knowledge of earlier experiences. However this emotional input may, on occasions, bias rational decision making. Additionally, because perception takes into account spatial relationships, colour, three dimensions and is routed through the amygdala any visual message, as evident in lifestyle display ads, speaks directly to the emotions in a way in which verbal language, dealt with by the neocortex, cannot. As is often acknowledged, a picture can be worth a thousand words. A series of cigarettes ads containing semi-subliminal content may be worth a million.

Display ads, music, faces and other stimuli are thus all capable of triggering emotional reactions. Commonsense already tells us they can arouse, enlighten, cheer, depress, worry, stimulate, etc. Advertisers and composers know this. Regardless of whether their constructions are put together intuitively or on the basis of careful research, if they 'hit the right emotional button' then conscious appraisal after that initial response by the amygdala may be for nought. When no such conscious appraisal is possible, as in the case of semi-subliminal advertising, then that is when we may have something to fear.

Studies in implicit learning indicate that it is more than conceivable that when messages are presented around or below the threshold of conscious awareness they influence attitudes, thinking and behaviour in some responsive individuals. The number of individuals who are susceptible or responsive to such advertisig messages is immaterial (it could be anyone of us on occasions, or it could be a select few more regularly). But, regardless of how many individuals respond at any one time, attempts at such manipulation is unethical. Attempting to judge this issue on the basis of individual experience is pointless. The ads will not influence anyone directly, nor will the notions or emotions they convey become evident. In the meantime we will be congratulating ourselves that we 'are never influenced by any advertising, especially those elements we cannot see'. Our tendencies to rely on personal experience rather than take account of social science research will ensure that tobacco companies and others continue to attempt to sway our judgements. At present they may be testing the waters. In due course, they may well be able to manipulate the emotions associated with thinking as easily as Mozart and Beethoven, only the strings will be different. What then Freedom of Choice?


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Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003


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