How Your Brain Sees a Logo

On November 15, 2014
What happens in your head when you see a logo? Editors of LogoMaker compiled a stack of research journals into an infographic to show us what scientists have been learning from the latest brain science about how humans “see” and think about the logos they are looking at. The whole process is surprisingly complex and still takes just a little under 400 milliseconds – less than half a second. A lot happens in these 400 milliseconds it takes for you to see a logo, process it, and react to it — and it all has to do with color, shape, meaning, prior experience with the brand, and so on.
Color – Scientists believe that your eye doesn’t see color at all—your brain creates it through neural processes that take place along the fusiform gyrus, the hippocampus, and the primary visual cortex located at the back of the brain.
Shape – Once the color is identified near the back of the visual cortex, a signal is sent forward to the “what pathway” near the front of the visual cortex where shape and objects are recognized. It can even see shapes that aren’t there (like objects hidden in the white space of a logo).
Meaning – While color and shape are “bottom up” information, that is, it is gathered from the immediate environment; context and meaning is “top down” information added by your memory to help you understand and think about what it all means. This process uses many parts of the brain, but primarily the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex where emotions and rewards are processed.
Over the past two decades, neuroscientist have used brain imaging (fMRI) to take a closer look at how we think about logos. Here are some of the most interesting findings about a logo’s effect on your thinking:

  • There isn’t a single place in the brain where logos are processed. Sports and luxury brands (like Nike and Mercedes) trigger responses in the medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus, while value brands (like Wal-mart) activate neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex.
  • Brands that we like elicit activity in the ventral medial frontal pole, which is the area where we form self-esteem and the idea of who we are. This would suggest that our favorite brands play a large role in how we see ourselves. Something like: I’m a Coke person. Or, I’m the kind of person who likes and uses Apple products.
  • Our familiarity with a logo design determines which part of the brain thinks about it when we see it. “Strong” brands tend to trigger activity in the part of the brain associated with positive emotions and reward (pallidum, posterior cingulate and frontal cortex), while unknown brands activate neurons in areas of the brain associated with negative emotions (insula). This suggests that people use experience not declarative information to evaluate brands.
  • We do not think about logos the same way we think about trivial objects or even animals. Well-liked brands trigger responses in the same brain areas where human relationships (friendships for example) are processed. This may mean that biologically there is very little difference between relationships between two humans and a human and a brand.
  • Logos can actually change behavior. When scientists showed (subliminally) an Apple logo to some students, and an IBM logo to others, the students who saw the Apple logo performed better on a creativity test. Students shown a Disney logo (again subliminally) performed better on an honesty test than student who saw an E! TV logo.


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