Brain Research – Some Thoughts for Interpreters

interpreterSperry’s famous research at Caltech on the “split-brain” was shared with the scientific community in the 1960s, and since then, numerous other studies have been done that provide more insight into the varied specialized functions of different parts of the human brain. These studies suggest that there is no simplistic explanation of “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. Although certain functions have been proven to reside in specific hemispheres, humans have an entire brain and nervous system that must work in a holistic fashion to remember what is important and make decisions quickly when necessary.

Those of us who interpret nature and culture read these studies with interest but must look beyond any specific study to think more deeply about how brain research might influence how we communicate with our audiences. Rob Bixler recently observed in a Facebook post that, “If we were to delve into communication theory or linguistics, or persuasion literature, we would soon be buried in 1000s of overlapping theories that could inform our work. Think of these research-based ideas as metaphorical rather than marching orders. Most of the stuff we do, we do out of professional judgment, and rationalize after the fact with research.”

Looking at the broad range of neurology and cognitive psychology research, a few ideas shine through for me as points to consider:

We cannot change people but we can influence their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors by encouraging them to “think.” Sam Ham emphasizes this in his new book, Intepretation –  Making a Difference on Purpose. We get people to think by introducing strong themes, asking questions, and starting conversations with our visitors and within them. Ideally they leave our experiences with more questions in their mind than upon arrival. They are thinking about the engaging idea or ideas we introduced. They change themselves if our interpretation gets them to think more deeply and see the opportunity to change their own behavior.


Getting people to pay attention is essential. We cannot get them to think if they are not engaged. Sam Ham teaches TORE as a way to remember key steps in planning interpretive experiences. T is for Thematic, which gets people to think, but the other three components are to gain the attention of the guest, to engage them. O is for organized, R is for relevant and E is Enjoyable. People stay tuned if our experiences are organized and relevant to their lives while being enjoyable or engaging. If we get them to pay attention, we may get them to think about our theme.

“The more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory” – John Medina, Brain Rules

When we design experiences that employ all five senses, we create memories. The human brain actually encodes information in diverse parts of the brain and a smell, a visual or the right words will take us back to a cherished memory. Reversing the process, we can create memorable experiences.  When we discuss learning styles, it’s important to remember that most of us actually use all learning styles with some preferences for one or two of them. Richly designed experiences employ all of them.

Neurological and communications research will continue to influence how we work in the future. Ideally we are not locked into any piece of research so completely that we cannot learn from and use the new ideas that arise. As Rob points out, we use our professional judgment and hands-on experiences to learn what works for us and what does not. Research is great for affirming why a certain approach works and getting us to think about how to make experiences we design even more engaging.

-Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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