Do you know what is cognitive load is? No? Well you're not alone. But if you want to know what it is and why it's important then you need to attend HeyHuman's seminar tomorrow afternoon at 12.35pm on the Experience stage of the Innovation Lions.

The session, featuring Dan Machen [above left] and Felix Morgan [above right], innovators at creative agency HeyHuman, will involve a real-time battle between technology and human attention as they bring to life the neuroscience concept of cognitive load and the challenges it poses for creativity. 

In a live experiment on stage, they will monitor and examine research agents’ brains in real-time, to see what tech is doing to our heads - by comparing their comprehension powers in a focused state versus when they are multi-screening.

Below, Machen and Morgan explain the session and their understanding of neuroscience in more detail and tell us why sometimes it's better to simply turn off.

Your session in the Palais covers neuroscience and ‘cognitive load’; can you explain a bit more about what that is and why we should take note of it?

Morgan: Essentially we’re looking at the battle for attention that brands are facing. We now live in a world absolutely inundated with messaging, where consumers are exposed to up to 3,000 adverts a day and switch between channels 21 times an hour.

At HeyHuman we’ve been doing quite a bit of neuroscience research into what this hyper-stimulation is doing to our audience’s heads. We found that they experience high cognitive load, which is basically your mental capacity.

This makes people less emotionally engaged, more distracted, and results in much lower ad recall. When audiences are this overloaded, brands need to take a new approach to their communications, helping people navigate the sea of information rather than adding to the noise.


Advertising initially struggled to adapt to evolving technology; do you think the industry is more understanding of it now?

Machen: I don’t think we should be aspiring to adapt to technology. Technology moves incredibly quickly, and if you just focus on what’s new and shiny you’re going to end up creating a lot of things that real people don’t care about.

Brands often get caught up in this, aiming for ‘world firsts’ that no one actually uses. iBeacons may exist, but if only 20 per cent of your audience can actually use them, why would you bother?

Instead of adapting to technology I think we need to get better at adapting to people, and find better ways to understand how our audiences interface with the world. It’s less about emerging technologies and more about emerging behaviours, and I think we’ve still got a long way to go with our understanding there.


Brands often get caught up in aiming for ‘world firsts’ that no one actually uses. 

Will the pace of technology and its evolution always mean many of us are playing catch-up?

Morgan: Technology is evolving quicker and quicker. For the past 50 years technology has doubled every two years, but certain fields (such as bio-hacking) are outstripping that significantly. I think this makes it very easy for brands to end up chasing these new technologies, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the best approach. If your point of differentiation comes purely from using a new piece of technology, consumers will very rarely care.

Often, the best way for brands to do something amazing is by using old tools in a clever new way. One of my favourite examples of this is what Unilever did in India [below] last year. In large areas of the country they had no media channels whatsoever – no radio, no TV, and certainly no Snapchat or Vine.

So instead of focusing on what they could do that was new, Unilever looked at what already existed and how they could do something new with it. They created a radio station that used the one piece of technology everyone had – a feature phone – and created a new media channel that everyone could access.



Has that evolution, and consumers’ gravitation towards a more diverse number of platforms, made life for advertisers more difficult, or more exciting?

Machen: I think both, definitely. We don’t have the luxury of simple models like AIDA anymore, where we take consumers step-by-step through the purchase funnel until they buy a product. People live much less linear lives than they did before, and the complexity of channels and increased individualism makes it more difficult than ever. It’s also much more exciting though, as it gives us much more tools to be smarter with.

Today brands need to be less concerned with ‘omni-channel’ strategies, where you’re broadcasting the same message in every channel simultaneously, and much more focused on context and personalisation.



People behave very differently on every platform, and digital identities have made it much more complex than previously. If you were to look at my LinkedIn and my Facebook you would find completely different people, and each of those people is looking for something completely different. Brands that win in the future will use personalization and tailoring to cut through in highly media saturated environments.


Often, the best way for brands to do something amazing is by using old tools in a clever new way.

Your talk is part of the new Innovation Lions festival; are you excited to see what this new element of Cannes Lions can offer?

Morgan: Massively so. The Lions team has been very deeply involved with the community in the creation of this festival, and I think they’ve taken it in a really exciting direction. They’ve stayed true to the core offering of Cannes and focused it around creativity.

The Innovation Lions will offer brand owners a chance to get deeper than ever into how data and technology are changing the media landscape. They set the bar very high by inviting MIT and NASA, so in our session we’re going to be doing a live neuroscience experiment on stage, where we’ll be taking the audience on a tour of what’s going on inside the brain as they are exposed to various forms of brand messaging.


What’s the most exciting or interesting piece of technological innovation you’ve seen in the recent past?

Machen: One of my favourite examples of where technology is going is something MIT Media Lab shared at SXSW in 2014. They’ve been working on a product called The Narratarium, which would bring stories to life for kids in an amazing new way.

As their parents read a book to them they would use voice recognition and partner it up with an online database to project relevant visuals around the room. Basically what this means is as your parents read you Harry Potter you could see him flying around your room in real-time.

I love this because when they use it, no one will care whatsoever about the data or sensors required to create it – they’ll just care about the magical experience they’ll share with their family. It’s a great reminder that technology is not the end goal, it’s a means to an end, and real human experiences will be much more important in the future.  


What piece of technology could you not live without?

Morgan: I’m quite happy to say there isn’t one! I love technology and I spend a frankly ridiculous amount of time using it, but I also understand the negative impact it can have on me. By going through our research I’ve seen firsthand how much more distracted and how much less emotionally engaged I am when I’m switching between tasks on my devices. I’ve seen how much more difficult it is for me to do any task that requires deep thinking, so I now make an effort to periodically switch off from technology for a bit.


Log out of Facebook, put your phone on Airplane mode, and take your headphones out. You’ll be amazed at how much more you enjoy that new HBO box set.


Log out of Facebook, put your phone on Airplane mode, and take your headphones out. You’ll be amazed at how much more you enjoy that new HBO box set, how much quicker you get through your book, and how much more you notice in your local neighbourhood. Technology helps us do amazing things, but we need to be more mindful of our relationship with it to ensure we are getting the best out of it.

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