Do You Know How the Hippocampus, Cognitive Maps, and Smartphones are Connected?

Those unplanned, impromptu moments when we’re staring at our phones — known as moments of inactivity — actually provide the best opportunities for brands to connect with us.

Unlocking our phone “to see what’s new” is something we do automatically, prompted by habitat, anxiety, or boredom. Thanks to our devices, waiting times in line at the grocery store, the airport, stuck in traffic, etc., don’t feel as long as they used to.

These moments are reactions to environmental triggers in our brains, like hunger, thirst, fatigue, stress, anger, excitement, desperation, and frustration. All these moments are habitual, serving as the patterns of human behavior that produce daily cognitive maps.

For brands engaging in digital publicity, these cognitive maps offer important information about when and where they can reach us. In these moments, different brands provide us with answers and relief to the various questions or feelings we might have at the time. This is no coincidence: it’s a reflection of our own brains’ behavior.

Now, we’ll talk about how our hippocampus is influenced during these moments. One of our brain’s primary functions is to collect environmental information via our sensory intake (the eyes, nose, ears, etc.) and generate a behavioral response, basically the result of how this intake is interpreted. The hippocampus regulates our memory and spatial reasoning, i.e. navigation in a geographic sense. It helps us get around, react to our surroundings, and make decisions based on past experiences and the present world around us. It’s where our memories are stored.


How does the Hippocampus relate to Cognitive Maps?

Well, to explain how they work together to create moments of brand influence, Mobile Marketer gives us a clear example.

Imagine a woman in New York who finishes work and walks seven blocks to her house, passing through spaces that highly stimulate her hippocampus. This is her daily routine, and her cognitive map reacts to all the sensory stimuli along the way: smells, sights, loud noises, and a keen sense of place created by familiar street names and places.

Hungry for dinner, the woman waits at a crosswalk, taking out her phone to Google recipes while she crosses the street with a crowd of pedestrians. Ads for a new organic pasta sauce catch her eye, and the decision is easy. When she reaches the grocery store on the other side of the street, a mental detonator goes off in her hippocampus, and she thinks, “I better grab a couple things while I’m by the store.” That’s the routine.

She goes to the market looking for that organic pasta sauce that she made a mental note of earlier. It’s perfectly normal for her to shop for dinner ingredients at this time — lots of people do it. In fact, so many people do this that there are extra cashiers stationed there right now to accommodate peoples’ cognitive maps and keep the lines moving. The woman finds the sauce and a box of noodles, and heads to the checkout line. While she waits, a sudden impulse makes her take out her phone again as her items roll down the conveyer belt. She opens Facebook and as she scrolls, something stands out. A Facebook ad presents a new Netflix series, coming out tonight. The timing is perfect. Her items move up to the cashier. She grabs a box of microwave popcorn and adds it to the pile, searching for reviews of the series online while the cashier scans her items.

The pasta sauce, the microwave popcorn, and Netflix were all purchasing decisions made during those unplanned “moments of inactivity” during the day when she took out her phone. These moments were facilitated by environmental stimuli, but nevertheless, the window of opportunity was recorded in her cognitive map and triggered by a sensory reaction in hippocampus.

For digital advertisers, this is the “magic moment” to offer an idea designed to satisfy the needs of consumers and tickle their hippocampus, resulting in a quick trip to the store that generates both sales and a fun night on the couch.



Carolina Mendoza