Advertising Implanting Memories: Neuroscientific Insights and Cultural Implications

In a recent article, Jonah Lehrer referred to a neuroscientific experiment concerning marketing images which had very disturbing results.  The test subjects, it must be added, constituted 100 university undergraduates, who are supposed to be our future leaders in areas of life as diverse as industry, politics, education, and culture.

According to this article, our memories may not be function as independent categories that passively sit in our brains, but are highly malleable things that cannot help but borrow from its surroundings, and we can even be made to believe (however subtly) that we have memories of actually experiencing what was being advertised, even when no such experiences actually existed.

This study has massive cultural implications for both good and ill. At one level, it provides a highly cautionary note about our cultural milieu in which every available space has been captured by advertisers to be made to foist the latest product onto our lives, or the latest “social service” ads (as indicated by a recent furore in Australia concerning advertising the use of condoms for gay sex, where its defenders spoke of the advertisement as merely a reflection of reality, and ignored the capacities for advertisement to create and normalise realities). This study provides further material to the insight the Anglican theologian Graham Ward made in Cities of God. In a city without God, Ward says, everything becomes a simulation.
At another level, it should sound a clarion call to the church in the importance of its art, iconography and music in our contemporary “politics of belief”, not in terms of implanting memories that should not exist, but in terms of bolstering the Communion of Saints that transgresses time and space as a concrete social reality, and not merely a stale cognitive category. Sacred art assists in the Church’s evangelical task because they form that space of social possibles outlined by Pierre Bourdieu (mentioned in a previous post), which in turn nurture the inclination towards belief in the claims of the Gospel, for those within the church walls as well as for those without.

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