Moran Cerf used to break into banks for a living.

A former hacker and graphic designer, and a filmmaker turned neuroscientist turned professor turned marketing consultant, Moran has gone from professionally breaking into banks (paid for by the banks to test their security systems) to professionally breaking into brains (often paid for by brands). His studies of our ability to control emotion, how to use dreams to introduce or eliminate habits, the science of free will, and simple decision-making have informed and entertained groups ranging from marketing thought leaders to audiences at the World Economic Forum.

When I had the chance to interview him on Innovation Crush, Moran discussed, among other things, the neuroscience of marketing and the power of dreams.

Here are a few things Moran knows about your brain:

1. Your Decisions Are Not Your Own

Citing a study of a group of courtroom judges, Moran describes all the environmental and neurological stimuli that affect the decisions we make, even identifying that the best time to see a judge is right after breakfast or just after lunch. For judges--as well as the rest of us non-gavel carriers--things like lighting, colors, the weather, mood, a song heard recently, the time of day, food intake, personal history, the near future, and other subtle environmental conditions can mean the difference between a yes or no when making decisions. It should also be noted that there's no cure for this type of subconscious conditioning. The best we can do is be aware that it exists while continuing to make a conscious effort to be neutral at all times. 

2. Your Dreams Can Be Hacked

When asked what his current innovation crush is, Moran brought up something he's been working on for a little over a year--introducing or eliminating habits through dreams. According to Moran, "Your body goes to sleep, but your brain still does stuff." There's a sweet spot during our sleep where the brain is essentially rethinking life. The theory of the study is that certain smells, phrases, and emotional cues can be introduced during this reenvisioning time.

For instance, if you're a smoker, Moran and his team can spray a cigarette smell into the room, followed by the smell of rotten eggs, and your brain will almost instantly change to associate cigarettes with the smell of rotten eggs. And who wants to smoke spoiled eggs? Other negative or positive associations can be tied to things like spending habits, biases (racial, gender, and social classes) dieting, exercise, and more.

3. Your Sleep Is the No. 1 Cause of Happiness

Even without sneaking habits into your dreams, sleep is the No. 1 cause of happiness, giving the brain ample time to recharge. When asked about our own decisions versus faith in a higher power, Moran cited a Nobel Prize-winning scientist's study in which rest does more for your happiness than the other things near the top of the list, including exercise, volunteering, spirituality, and social interactions. (Note that money doesn't even make the top five.) Interestingly enough, however, Moran's particular interest in happiness lies in the link between spirituality (No. 3) and social interaction (No. 2) as the ultimate cure for the loneliness blues, since for many, a belief in God means that you always have a friend with you.

4. Your Brain Can Be Bought

Moran is no stranger to working with brands. Product manufacturers spend a poop-load of money to know all the neurological nuances that go into purchasing decisions. Their often lavishly funded brain-hacking studies are the reason prices end in .99, the reason movie theater seats are red (it's perceived as more dramatic), the reason grocery stores are lit and arranged a certain way, the reason you can't find a clock in a casino, and even why I bought that Slap Chop a few years ago. Particularly in the case of infomercials, the science of it all is that your brain releases dopamine in response to the idea of a reward. That's why you're offered not one, not two, not three, but 20 add-ons for the same price if you call now. The reason you need to call now? Dopamine wears off in 10 minutes. 

5. Your Attention Focuses More on Those With Accents

When my daughter was about 5, she had a preschool teacher with a very heavy Korean accent. My mom, who a few years ago retired from teaching, reassured me that statistically, kids pay closer attention to those with accents because they're trying harder to understand what the teacher is saying. The same is true for adults. When you hear Moran's fascinating stories through his fast-paced French-Israeli accent, you pay attention. It's no wonder he's a teacher at the coveted Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It's no wonder that his story at The Moth won the sought-after Grand Slam prize, and it's no wonder that he'll be on the main stage at this year's TED event, doing what he does best--making us think differently about how we think altogether.

Published on: Feb 3, 2016
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