The mid-September sun began its ascent over the autumn colored southeastern hills of Cavendish, Vermont on a brisk, dewy morning in 1848. A solitary ray of golden sunlight made its way through the gritty kitchen window of a modest, one story, whitewashed, wooden framed, house and landed on the cheek of a dark haired, bearded young man who sat quietly at the breakfast table, lost in his own thoughts.
John Martyn Harlow, a newly-minted physician, born in Whitehall, New York, barely thirty years old, a graduate of The Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia, just four years into his trade, took one last sip of his morning coffee and jotted down one final note, on a yellowing, twice-dog-eared page of the small, tattered leather-bound notebook which seemed to follow him everywhere he went. The young doctor then gingerly, methodically, almost as if caressing it closed the book, tucked it safely into the left breast pocket of his overcoat and headed out the door.
Just about that same time, clear across town, a twenty-five year old, successful and well liked, Phineas Gage stepped through the doorway of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad’s Cavendish field office. Gage had only recently been hired as the company’s construction foreman. His charge was to ready the bedrock of the mountainous terrain, to accept the newly forged northeastern spur of the railroad. Gage was an up and comer— bright, competent, decisive and well respected both by his coworkers and the railroad bosses.
For both men, it was a typical Wednesday morning. Neither Gage nor the young Doc Harlow had any inkling they were both about to make history…
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. It’s a secret I use when I need to convince someone of something, or sell something to someone, or teach a lesson, or change a mind, or promote an idea, or drill a point home, in such a way, that it will be long remembered and not easily forgotten. I shouldn’t say a word, really. Because a lot of people have paid me a lot of money, to use this little secret to help them sell a lot of stuff, to a lot of other people. But I’m feeling generous, today. So here goes…
Smart entrepreneurs and marketers who want to win in today’s noisy, overcrowded marketplace MUST become master persuaders. But the fact is, the vast majority really suck at it.
Most people, when trying to convince another person of something, go about it by using reason and logic. They gather facts and organize them in a logical order and then present them in a rational argument, in hopes of changing minds. It’s a method that seems to make perfect sense given what we’ve been taught.
Ever since… well, damn near the beginning of time, guys like Plato, Kant, Nietzsche and Sgt. Joe Friday (Google it) have emphasized the importance of gathering “just the facts,” and analyzing those facts in a logical and rational manner, as a means of solving ones problems and making good decisions— an idea echoed by our parents, our teachers and the thinking elite, who warn, if we were not careful and allow emotion to creep into our reasoning, we will end up making some pretty foolish, irrational and regrettable decisions. Logic, they tell us, is systematic and rational. Emotion, on the other hand, is flighty and visceral, and cannot at all be trusted.
Sounds like solid advice, right? There’s only one flaw. It’s all bullshit.
Trying to win an argument, sell a product, or persuade someone to see your point of view by using facts, statistics and logic is like trying to hammer a nail with Jell-O. That shit never works. And here’s why.
Every decision we humans make—from, “what should I have for dinner?” to “should I cut the red wire or the blue wire going to the detonator switch?”—is based, not on logic, as we’ve been taught, but purely on emotion.
That “splat” you just heard was the blood shooting out of the eyes of all those hardcore critical thinkers out there, who disagree with me. To wit, I guess it’s time for a little lesson in modern brain science. So, let’s get back to our story…
Later that morning, Phineas Gage was using an iron tamping rod to pack explosives into a hole. The explosive charge accidently detonated. The tamping rod—43 inches long, an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter and weighing over 13 pounds—shot skyward, penetrating Gage’s left cheek, ripping through his brain and skull, and landing several dozen feet away.
From all medical accounts, the front part of the left side of Gage’s brain was totally destroyed, yet incredibly, he remained conscious through the whole incident. Witnesses say, almost immediately after the accident, Gage got up from the ground without assistance and walked to the cart that would take him into town to be treated by the young Doctor Harlow.
Despite his torn scalp and fractured skull, and being blinded in his left eye, Gage remained lucid and was able to speak rationally with Harlow. He even maintained his wit, joking with the doctor about bringing him some business.
Doctor Harlow attended to Gage’s injury, and over the next ten weeks remained by his side, studiously and diligently documenting his patient’s condition. When Harlow felt his patient was sufficiently healed, Gage was sent home to resume normal life.
Despite his devastating injury, Gage lived for another 13 years, in good health and free from paralysis, with his speech, memory, and basic intelligence completely intact.
But, this is where the story gets interesting…
What did change in Gage’s life is as fascinating as what didn’t. Once an efficient, decisive, capable young man destined for success, the post-accident Gage became, according to Harlow’s personal notes, “impulsive, impatient and obstinate, capricious and vacillating; seemingly unable to make decisions— even the simplest of ones.” Gage could list all the facts for and against something, and do so in perfect, logical order—now, however, he struggled with picking between the choices.
A recent computerized reconstruction of Gage’s brain injuries, based on measurements taken from his skull, revealed that the region damaged by the tamping rod was an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortices (vmPFC); the very area of the brain which we now know plays an integral part in the regulation of emotion and the process of decision-making.
“The regulation of Emotion and decision-making”—this is key, so remember it.
In order for modern-day neuroscientists to understand more about how this region relates to the kinds of behaviors so markedly changed in Phineas Gage, it became necessary to find and study his living counterparts.
Enter Neuroscientist and director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, Dr. Antonio Damasio, and his young patient “Eliot.”
Due to a brain tumor and subsequent surgery, Eliot suffered the very same localized damage in the brain as did Gage. And like Gage, he too was experiencing remarkable changes in personality and inability to make decisions.
Eliot had been a good husband and father, and an astute professional in a business firm. After his operation he became, like Gage, impulsive and lacking in self-discipline. He could no longer follow a schedule. His judgment became pretty poor—so poor in fact, that his constant missteps finally caused him to lose his entire life’s savings on a series of remarkably boneheaded business decisions. He could no longer hold a steady job, and his wife finally ended up leaving him, taking their family with her.
Eliot came to Dr. Damasio out of desperation. He needed to make sense of what was happening to him. Damasio ran a battery of tests and found that, like Gage, Eliot has lost the ability to process emotion.
It is important to note here, that as far as “intelligence” is concerned, both Gage and Eliot had no measurable deficit, post trauma. Eliot’s I.Q. score still tested in the superior range, and he could enumerate every possible solution to any problem you could pitch at him. He just couldn’t choose one.
Eliot seemed unable to recognize priorities. He would hammer away at unimportant tasks, while at the same time, disregarding imperative ones. Given the choice between closing an important business deal or rearranging the useless junk he had picked up trolling neighborhood garage sales… he couldn’t choose.
Lunchtime was also an ordeal for Eliot. He would venture from restaurant to restaurant, reading all the items on each of the menus, but he inevitably went back to the office still hungry— because he never knew what he “felt” like eating.
Thanks to the meticulous, but faded pen and ink notes, in a country doctor’s tattered little notebook, and the curiosity of doctors like Antonio Damasio, and the advent of amazing technological advances like the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)—which allows us to take a real-time look into the functioning brain— we now know the truth about how logic and emotion work to help us form our opinions and make decisions.
We don’t make decisions based on rational analysis of fact; we make decisions based on how the analysis of those facts makes us feel.
The biological truth is simple: if you were incapable of feeling emotion, you would be incapable of making any kind of decision at all. All decision-making is triggered by emotion. And the best way I know of triggering emotion is by telling a good story. Nothing lights the emotional center of the brain like a good story.
And that’s my dirty little secret.
If you want to persuade, convince, sell and motivate, you can’t do it with dry facts and figures, you must translate those facts into a great and compelling story.
How, exactly do you use story to sell, convince and persuade? Well, that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post.
Till then… stay weird, my friend.