The Network Within The Network

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“Only connect”

E.M. Forster

The social network

It’s obvious that the network is the metaphor for our age. Frank Rose, in The Art of Immersion writes:

“We are embedded from birth in a network of fellow humans - some we may know, many we don’t, but we rely on them all. Because the internet has made the network such a central metaphor, we are conscious of this in a way that the average seventeenth-century European perhaps was not”

Similarly, writing of of David Finchers’s The Social Network the film critic Roger Ebert argued that we (people in the real and ordinary world) are becoming increasingly self-aware of our participation in social networks:

“I think it is an early observer of a trend in our society, where we have learned new ways of thinking of ourselves: As members of a demographic group, as part of a database, as figures in...a social network.”

Meanwhile in marketingland we’re wrapping our heads (some enthusiastically, some reluctantly) around the fact that people themselves are now one of the most important media channels available to us... Around how our content can have social utility and value for people in their networks of everyday relationships.... Around how our content can leap from originating channels to enter the networks that enable people to share it.

While it’s enabled by the infrastructure of technology, the network is composed of nothing more than what it has always been - human relationships. Which means there is of course, another kind of network at work. The networks that lie in the human brain.

The neural network

Much of marketingland still labours under the quaint illusion that we’re in business of transmitting of information, and that advertising works through ‘communicating’ ‘messages’. As if we’re surgically inserting something into people’s brains. As if - were we able to look closely enough - we would be able to find our message neatly filed away in our memories, whole and intact.

Perhaps if we spent a bit more time considering how our memories work, more of us would let go of the notion of messaging. So let’s do just that.

I’ve banged on plenty about the nature of ideas and creativity being the art of creating new combinations. It is significant that this process of creating new combinations that underpins all new ideas and innovations is reflected in the very nature and mechanics of how we human beings actually learn and remember.  

Not only are ideas the result of new combinations, but they actually result in new combinations, new connections in the structure of our brains.

Indeed we know that the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings. It is something altogether more dynamic and malleable. Memory is a process, not a thing. Our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and continuously modified by experience.

This is a phenomenon that scientists refer to as cortical or neural plasticity. Thinking, learning, and behaviour all actually change the brain's physical structure and organization. Studies show that experience actually prompts rewiring in the brain, both creating and eliminating new connections (‘synapses’) between neurons. 

Evidence from experiments on mice for example, shows that neurons develop new connections when the brain is asked to adjust to new experiences. The new connections alter the circuitry of the brain by changing the communications between the neurons.

It appears also that learning actually encourages long-term rewiring of the brain, strengthening the connections between groups of neurons that take part in encoding the different sensorial dimensions (sight, sound, action, etc.) of an experience. New experiences create new connections in the brain - creating what Daniel Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard University, describes as the ‘engram’.

New learning then – just like new ideas – consists of creating new connections and combinations. What is crucially important about these connections is that each time we use them they become better defined, and more likely to be used in the future. Every sensation we remember, every thought we think, alters the connections within the vast network of neurons in our brain, strengthening, weakening or forming new connections. 

Combining and combinations - the  shape of ideas and the process of their creation - would appear to be reflected in the very workings of our brain.

Advertising and the creation of new connections

The cod science of researchers out of touch with creativity and out of step with developments in neuroscience would tell us that what we do works through messaging. 

This is to be deplored and resisted for as Feldwick has noted, the assumption that we’re in the messaging business utterly devalues and misunderstands the real nature and role of creativity.

As he puts it, it reduces it to “a set of tricks for getting attention and increasing memorability... It leads to advertising which is creative in a purely intellectual way, often inventing an elaborate scenario in order to dress up an essentially intellectual idea.”

In contrast to the pseudo science of marketingland, science as we’ve just seen, teaches us that memory works through the creation of connections. And if a brand is simply a set of memories, then all it is is a set of connections and associations in the brain. We form and access memories of brands by creating and activating networks of associations.

Creativity isn’t some kind of distraction tactic, bait or bribe. It isn’t a wrapper or envelope for a message. It IS the content. It is the content because as Feldwick has argued, it creates associations - “connections in the brain that link together ideas, images and feelings.” 

As Bill Bernbach put it all those years ago (one does have to wonder at the glacial pace of marketingland's evolution):

“Most readers come away from their reading not with a clear, precise, detailed registration of its contents on their minds, but rather with a vague, misty idea which was formed as much by the pace, the proportions, the music of the writings as by the literal words themselves.”

This perspective encourages us to wean ourselves off our reliance on asking people what the ‘message’ of our content is, whether in focus groups or in quantitative surveys. It encourages us towards asking: What world are we evoking? What associations are we creating? What experience are we creating?

It encourages us to value how we tell our stories as much as what we tell our stories about. And not to relegate the how to an afterthought. It encourages us to let go of insisting on the primacy of words. It encourages us indeed, to shut the hell up. It compels us to value sights, sounds, and user experience more than the verbal, intellectual content of what we make. It means that we must value craft (whatever form it takes these days) and properly value the myraid of executional choices before us. Which means making the time and space for them. And for those weaned on the crack of the focus group and copy-test,  it inconveniently means that not everything that moves can be researched and ‘validated’ with consumers in advance of actually being made. Anyway.

Everything is networked

Perhaps all our inventions and discoveries underline one essential truth - that everything is connected, and nothing is an island unto itself. We are but networks within networks.

Marketingland has not one, but two networks to understand and be a part of. Because within the social network lies a neural network. 

The notion of messaging always failed to describe how what we did actually worked on the human brain. And it is increasingly ill-equipped to take advantage of our technological lives and selves.

So perhaps the new question for marketers to ask is: How does this create connections? How does my content, my experience, my platform, my story create connections in the neural network? And how does it create connections in the social network?


Buonomano D.V, and Mezernich, MM, ‘Cortical plasticity: from synapses to maps’, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1998;21:149-86.

Kenneth M Heilman, MD, Stephen E. Nadeau, MD, and David Q. Beversdorf, MD. "Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms" Neurocase (2003)

Paul Feldwick, ‘Exploding The Message Myth’

Frank Rose, in The Art of Immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories

Daniel L Schacter: Searching for Memory, Perseus Books Group, 1996

Karel Svoboda, ‘Circuit and Synaptic Mechanisms Underlying Experience-Dependent Cortical Plasticity’, Howard Hughes Medical Institute