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TBWA\Worldwide's executive director of engagement for Nissan United asks: How can brands hold consumers' attention in the age of multitasking?

"You know that guy in that movie with the tall blonde actress. … Shit, it’s on the tip of my tongue."

Sound familiar? That’s your brain’s way of saying it’s overloaded — that its cognitive capacity has been maxed out. It’s probably happening to a lot more people a lot more often than they would like.

Qualitatively, we’ve all guessed that our connected lifestyles are making us a bit dumber.

At this week’s SXSW Interactive in Austin, two agency guys, Dan Machen and Felix Morgan from HeyHuman (working in conjunction with leading neuroscientists), gave us the quantitative proof in their "Neuroplasticity and Tech: Why Brands Have to Change" presentation. Moreover, Dan and Felix explained the implications for advertisers attempting to effectively engage consumers struggling with the cognitive collapse associated with hyper-stimulation.

"Neuroplasticity" denotes our brain’s ability to adapt to and process all sorts of stimuli. Prevailing wisdom on the topic of neuroplasticity told us that most of the brain’s wiring happens during our younger, more formative years, and those neural pathways are fixed for life. Recent studies show conclusively that growth of the Internet, mobile devices and multitasking is causing a significant shift in the way our brains process daily information and that the effects are long-lasting. In short, we’ve effectively managed to re-wire the very pathways neurons travel and how data is processed and stored in our brains.

While we may think that our devices empower multitasking, the truth is that we’re actually task switching, or dividing our attention across many different stimuli. Instead of focusing on a specific task where we can process and store information in our long-term memory, we’re now sending that data into the wrong part of our brain where it cannot be stored for the long haul — hence the "tip of my tongue" effect. Simply put, we’ve maxed out our cognitive load.

Compounding the fact that we’re not properly storing information, we’re also becoming far more reliant on tech-driven transactive memory. "Transactive memory" is a term that typically refers to a shared memory that develops between couples as they interact with each other. Think of it as a "group mind," a memory that’s more powerful shared than it is recalled by any individual in isolation. Today, more than one-third of couples reach out and touch their smartphone upon waking up — not their significant others. Technology is changing the transactive paradigm; we’re less reliant on people to fill in the gaps, there’s less "value" exchange, and we’re thinking less effectively as a result – thanks, Google and Wikipedia.

The worst part is, it feels good. It feels like we’re actually getting the job done. When we complete these little tasks that require very little attention, we get a hit of dopamine. A retweet on Twitter, a ‘like’ on Instagram, an unread email quickly browsed to get rid of that little, red notification … All of it is brain candy, all of it is superficial, and all of it feels great. This feedback loop is creating pathways in our brains that lead to inefficiencies in our ability to transform stimuli into long-term memories.

Recent research illustrates that ad recall is cut from 92% when a single source of content is consumed (like TV with commercials) to 32% when concurrently trying to complete tasks on a laptop/smartphone while "watching" TV. The same holds true for emotional attachment – multitasking and cognitive overload effectively shut down the parts of the brain that become emotionally stimulated, which dramatically reduces affinity toward ads and content.

Most say they want to focus their attention more, but the dopamine levels are so addictive that we feel like we have no choice. Let’s add a little context to show how addicted we really are: Just knowing that an unread email is sitting in your inbox has distractive power equivalent to a 10-point reduction in IQ — that’s the same as smoking marijuana.

And then we go and throw 3,000 ads a day at these guys. Any guesses on how that’s going to work out?

But there is hope. There are proven ways to break through and properly engage a consumer, even in the midst of our hyper-stimulated, attention-fragmented daily routines. Here are a few helpful tips I picked up from SXSW:

1)     Don’t assume people are watching. When possible, use disruptive sound and visuals to command attention.

2)     Make things ridiculously simple. Brevity wins – hit hard and get the pithy point across. Maybe copy should rhyme – after all, how many jingles can we still remember from our childhoods? Be consistently simple across online and offline touch points.

3)     Help out with the memory gaps. Add real value with techniques like friendly reminders, streamlining services and automation of everyday tasks. Give people less stuff to have to worry about, or make the things they do worry about less worrisome.

4)     Speak to the non-conscious. Maximize branded assets that don’t require much conscious processing. Use logos in fun/dynamic/interesting ways.

5)     Context, context, context: Right-size everything for the moment when content/message will be consumed. Focus on things that are super-relevant, and people will notice.

Evan Weissbrot is executive director of engagement with TBWA\Worldwide/s Nissan United.

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