Riding Brain Waves to Communicate

Is SpongeBob SquarePants too racy for preschoolers, who may become less able later to focus because of his fast pace?A Seattle Children's Hospital child development specialist warns parents that fast-paced cartoon shows — such as SpongeBob SquarePants with scene changes every 11 seconds — may make it harder for their youngsters to pay attention in school.

The study, by Dimitri Christakis and published in Pediatrics, echoes other studies that have concluded preschoolers who watch a lot of TV suffer from attention deficits in class. Christakis says what children watch is as important as how much TV they watch.

The test referenced by Christakis compared the performance of preschoolers who watched either SpongeBob or the slower paced Caillou or children who were allowed to color for nine minutes. The study indicates all the children did fine on tests involving memorizing, but the children who watched SpongeBob did the worst.

"It's over-stimulation that causes the problem," says Christakis. Later in life, he adds, hyper-stimulated children have a harder time sustaining focus.

While all this may be a cautionary tale about children — or anyone — watching too much TV, it also serves as a reminder that how our brains function is a byproduct to some degree of what we see.

Just as drug addicts profoundly, and perhaps permanently, alter the chemistry of their brains through substance abuse, people's ability to concentrate may be deeply affected by the imagery around them. You already see some of the effects. Think about the rapid-fire movement in TV ads aimed at young adults. You wouldn't see the same editing techniques on an AARP ad.

But the issue runs deeper than editorial direction for advertisements. New patterns of processing data — or ignoring data — being hardwired into young brains may aggravate existing challenges in reaching this demographic — in school, in civic discourse, and in marketing generally.

The growing segmentation of our population – by age, gender, socioeconomic category, communication vehicle preference — demands greater segmentation in messaging and choice of channels. It is simply getting harder to reach almost anybody or any group reliably in a single-shot outreach, whether through traditional media, new media or social media.

It is one reason why good marketeers are spending a lot more time boning up on psychology and new findings in neuroscience. They are trying to understand how the brain works.

For example, a recent study by a University of Virginia psychologist said we may have overdramatized the so-called differences in learning styles. The real difference between learning and not learning is determined by whether students pay attention.

Which brings us all the way back around to the importance of finding ways to capture someone's attention and holding it long enough to deliver a message.