Editor's note: Amy Shea is brand experience director at Ameritest, an Albuquerque, N.M., research firm. Based in Chicago, Emily Higgins is vice president of client services at Ameritest. 

“The human brain . . . just think about this problem for a second. Here is a lump of flesh, about three pounds, which you can hold in the palm of your hand. But it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space.”

– Vilayanur Ramachandran, neuroscientist

You don’t often think about your brain. You use your brain to think about everything else but that “lump of flesh” doing the thinking. And that’s how it should be most of the time, at least for us non-neuroscientists. 

But for now, let’s do think about why thinking should matter so much to brands. Because as we go through our days, living our lives, we’re all also collectors, unconsciously picking and sorting through a barrage of stimuli that we are taking in beneath our awareness: images, sensations and emotions that swirl around us in endless supply. And what gets sorted to be attended to – the brain activity that brings something to our awareness – should matter to brands. A lot.

So, what are we sorting for, exactly? And, when we get it, what do we do with it?

The first question is a bit easier to answer than the second.

In short, we are sorting for what has meaning to us. The brain is programmed to search for intention. Are you friend or foe? Is this thing in front of me happy, harmless or hurtful? We are, in essence, sorting for what will keep us alive in the most pleasurable way possible. 

There is a reason evidence of storytelling exists from before written language. Stories are, as screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says, “equipment for living.” They need not be grand or epic. They can be the simple narrative of what happens when the central character puts her hand into a fire and is burned. An inciting incident of in...