Behaviour essay: Living memory... neuroscience and events

Why do some events resonate, while others are quickly forgotten? Create the right environment, says Amy Thomson, director of live experience agency Seen, and you will have neuroscience on your side.

Stories are crucial to a successful experience, says Thomson
Stories are crucial to a successful experience, says Thomson

How exactly do you define what makes an experience shareable or not? Neuroscience can help us to understand how and why content embeds in an audience’s memory, offering a human-centric perspective that can inform and enhance event creation and execution.

Research has shown that when placed in stimulating and enriched environments, rats show improved neurogenesis – the process of creating new neuronal cells, which has been linked to memory – compared with rats in non-enriched environments. 

Putting this study in the context of live experience design, the more stimulating the environment, the more the audience will be able to recall during episodic memory. Stimulating does not mean chaotic, busy or saturated; it is about creating a feeling of novelty by engaging as many senses as possible. 

The importance of narrative

Stories are crucial to a successful experience because they give people an orderly sequence to process, rather than a mass of competing events and actions. They are also much easier to remember.

And stories provide a focal plane on which to make sense of complex subjects, map out the present situation and the role of the participant, and give the audience a context for action.

When curating the general feel of an experience, we look at creating a rich emotional landscape that fits with the brand. This is even more important when you are trying to change perceptions of that brand. It helps to have very clear stories aligned to the visual and physical elements.

If you want people to feel happy and relaxed (and therefore more open to the narrative in the space), create opportunities for them to smile. For example, hold the event in a building that is flooded with white light and create spaces within it that are comforting and safe. Even the detail of how the consumer interacts with an object elicits specific feelings towards it. Objects can have an emotional charge that captures our attention, modifies memory and guides both judgement and decision making. 

They serve as physical anchors to memory and experience, storing concepts and emotions that we consider to be important. In recent years, much academic thinking has shifted from the idea that objects represent cultures to suggesting that our whole way of thinking is built on physical encounter with the tools, objects and materials we touch and use. So by designing a physical environment, we not only replicate current cultures, but also create new ways of doing things.

It’s impossible to control every aspect of a person’s experience, but by understanding what their goals are – what makes them feel calm, alert and receptive, what they might find stimulating considering their subculture and interests – we can create an environment in which they are willing co-creators and participants. We can also tell the story in ways that are simple enough to capture and share without getting lost in translation. 

Use metaphor

We cannot grasp a new thought or concept without associating it with something we already know. It’s like a game of mental leapfrog: old concepts allow us to jump to new, more complex, concepts. Thinking of a metaphor or analogy for what your event is trying to say will make it easier to spread the message throughout the crowd. 

Use a digital lens

Think about how an extended audience might interpret the story you’re telling through limited, fragmented snippets on social media. Using storyboards to map the messages you want to spread beyond the room and into the digital realm can be extremely valuable. Stories don’t hinge on one moment, so ensure you think about all the other smaller touchpoints that visually come together as a full event experience. 

Consider schemas

Schemas are organised patterns of thought or behaviour that allow us to categorise information. They are how our brain makes sense of what is happening, through previous knowledge or familiar experiences. Another way to think of them is the scene-setting function of the brain.

Providing understandable schemas is why many tech companies use an auditorium for product launches, because it offers just the right combination of theatricality and authority. Brands or products that want a new set of associations can also use schemas to break patterns and preconceptions. While our brains can initially take time to make sense of new schemas, we are curious creatures and the novelty offers a big dopamine reward. But when things are too novel, they can be rejected if no schema exists to help us make sense of them and fit them into our understanding of the world. 

Make the space legible

This is urban planner speak for making space intuitive to navigate. Melissa Sterry, design scientist and systems theorist, compares events to cities on a smaller scale. She says: "There has been quite a lot of study into what makes something legible or illegible. It comes down to the matter of landmarks and distinguishing things that in your mind you would use as a reference point. When you have a very built-up area you lose sight of the landmarks."

Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City expands this further, showing how people make mental maps of places formed from well-designed patterns of paths, districts and boundaries, which, above all, must be distinctive. 

Multisensory storytelling

The impact of a rich, immersive environment is leading growing numbers of people to experiment with multisensory design, in particular scent and sound, as a way of augmenting the space around them. Collectively, they are known as cross-modalists. Recently, a number of them collaborated with Space Doctors, a network of academics, thought-leaders and cultural experts, on Choco-Phonica, an immersive exhibit at Bompas & Parr’s British Museum of Food, which studied how different sounds affected the taste of chocolate.

All these aspects provide a cognitive lens that can help outline a strategy which is often very intuitive to event producers. It is easy to forget that the industry we are all in demands that we wear a lot of different hats, from designer and architect to sociologist and psychologist.

People are complex, but understanding them is science. If we can balance this thinking with the art of beautiful creative and execution, we are moving in the right direction for an event industry that fuels a digital age. 

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