I've noticed the following phenomenon and am trying to find out if it is indeed true and if there is a scientific term for it:

When I think about ideas, I notice that I can rarely jump straight into "heavy" stuff, like thinking about a cognitive neuroscience article I read. Instead, doing another activity that "primes" my brain first tends to make me more conductive to heavy thinking. This can be watching a talk on TED.com or reading some lighter article.

In conversation, I find that it's fairly hard to have a "heart to heart" talk with a person right off the bat, but a casual conversation can evolve in that direction.

When thinking about the phenomenon, the following supporting evidence comes to mind:

I've read that in some asian cultures, it is traditional to start a business deal with small talk, or over a friendly dinner. The motivation for this tradition was weird to me, until I thought about it light of the phenomenon described above.

Most of my successful job interviews started with small talk, unrelated to skills or position at hand.

When thinking about other human "priming" behaviors, the one I can think of most clearly is foreplay before sexual encounters, which serves the following role

Foreplay is important from at least two considerations, one of which is purely physiological.[6] On the other hand, foreplay implies a certain level of confidence and trust between the partners and creates intimacy. Psychologically, foreplay lowers inhibitions and increases emotional intimacy between partners. Physically, it stimulates the process that produces sexual arousal.

I'm interested if there is indeed some "priming" activity that can put the human brain in a state of mind, where thinking or conversation is easier? If so, what is the term for such activity? Has any neurotransmitter been implicated in the phenomenon described above?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Often groups will use Icebreakers to ease conversation. $\endgroup$ – BenCole Dec 19 '12 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ This begs the question of what is the cognitive equivalent of ice that is being broken. What is this inhibition that prevents easy social interaction in a group $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Dec 20 '12 at 14:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ That's a different question: "what priming activities exist" vs "why is priming needed in the first place". Anyone could have any reason for social discomfort around strangers. Hell, with "stranger danger", kids are taught to be afraid of strangers. At the core, it's fear/anxiety, regardless of the cognitive reason behind it. But that's just for social discomfort. Turning the question around and using your foreplay example, what is "the ice being broken" there? $\endgroup$ – BenCole Dec 20 '12 at 14:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also, I'll add that we're analog (signal) creatures, not discrete (aka digital) ones. When we do things, we are not on/off. We have to build up energy to overcome an activation barrier (this isn't just on the neuronal level, this paradigm exists all over). So for many people, a digital (or near-digital) shift to a different state can be very uncomfortable. $\endgroup$ – BenCole Dec 20 '12 at 15:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The reason why potential business partners interact privately (e.g. get drunk, go hunting, and visit the banya, a kind of sauna, and get naked together in Russia) is to evaluate the person. It is easy to play false friend in the five minutes a contract is signed. But it is impossible to show a friendly and trustworthy side if you have none during a weekend trip to the Russian forest. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Aug 19 '13 at 15:30

Yes, there is such an activity and it is called priming. It is the same technique that involves mental, sexual foreplay. There has been a fair bit of research about the psychological effects of priming. I have limited the discussion, purely to priming, but there are many other interesting, associations with priming that could be discussed within another post.

I find the following points provide a good summary of the various modes of priming.

Priming is providing a stimulus that influences their near-term future thoughts and actions, even though they may not seem to be connected.
Conceptual priming occurs where related ideas are used to prime the response, for example 'hat' may prime for 'head'.
Semantic priming occurs where the meaning created influences later thoughts. Semantic and conceptual priming are very similar and the terms may be used interchangeably.
Non-associative semantic priming refers to related concepts but where one is less likely to trigger thoughts of the other, for example 'Sun' and 'Venus'.
Perceptual priming, is based on the form of the stimulus, for example where a part-picture is completed based on a picture seen earlier.
Associative priming happens when a linked idea is primed, for example when 'bread' primes the thought of 'butter'. This particularly applies to 'free association' word pairs.
Masked priming occurs where a word or image is presented for a very short time but is not consciously recognized.
Repetitive priming occurs where the repetition of something leads to it influencing later thoughts.
Reverse priming occurs where people realize they are being primed and, feeling they have been biased, over-respond in their choices which are now biased in the reverse direction

Meyer and Schvanveldt (1971), Neely (1977), Bargh and Pietromonaco (1982), Marcel, (1983), Draine and Greenwald (1998), Sherman and Kim (2002)

On the down side:
I have been unable to find studies investigating the neurotransmitters involved in priming (at this stage). One thought occurred to me from when I studied Neuroscience (many years ago). That arousal (as in attention) is required to LTP cells. Although, this specific example may not apply to priming, it is a parallel between the effects of psychological priming and physiological priming. I am sure there are better articles, I, currently, have limited access to journals.

Learning-facilitated long-term depression and long-term potentiation at mossy fiber-CA3 synapses requires activation of β-adrenergic receptors.
Hagena H, Manahan-Vaughan D.
Medical Faculty,
Department of Neurophysiology,
Ruhr University
Bochum Bochum, Germany.

  • $\begingroup$ very nice article, but priming isnt enough for business relations, i think there should be some motivation (satisfying psychological motives to do business) on the other side do you think that masked priming, implicit perception and subliminal advertising are connected? $\endgroup$ – ICanFeelIt Sep 20 '13 at 20:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.