Login for members

The Zero Moment of Memory

By Diana Lucaci

It is a well-established fact that memory is not perfect. Today, there are too many details to remember, so in order to mitigate the risk of forgetting, many people delegate their memory to technology. Within this research, we wanted to understand how the impact of technology has been shaping human memory regarding information and events. To gain perspective we examined how smartphone ownership has changed the way that people interact with the world on a day-to-day basis. The role of personal photography has certainly changed in the lives of Canadians by way of digital photography, and smartphone marketplace increase. It is important to understand how increased technology use impacts emotion and memory recall.

Typical market research using surveys is a good start to understanding consumer opinions and insights. However, the addition of neurological and biological measures allows for an understanding of what a person thinks and feels, beyond even their own awareness. Using neuromonitoring (EEG) we measured emotion and attention on a moment-to-moment basis. Additionally, eye-tracking showed us points of visual attention and pupil dilation, which tells us what is most visually noticed, as well as the person’s level of interest in it. The combination of traditional market research tools (survey performed by Fresh Intelligence), and the above-mentioned biological measures, create a powerful and dynamic tool to more effectively assess the consumer experience.


The EEG analysis generated two key metrics: emotional engagement and attentional activation. Emotional engagement was derived from left-right alpha asymmetry in the pre-frontal cortex, indicating changes in subjects’ emotional reactions. Greater relative activity in the left frontal region strongly correlates with approach motivations, including liking, wanting, motivating to action, purchase intent, and willingness to pay for something. Greater relative activity in the right frontal region correlates with withdrawal motivations, such as disliking, disgust, and avoidance behavior. The level of emotional engagement at each stage was measured as deviation from the total average level of engagement, across all subjects, across the whole experiment. 

How the research set-up was organized

The study was broken up into the following three testing groups:
Control Group (1) – Watched video only
Testing Group (2) – Watched video, took a photo with their own smartphone, could refer to photos later
Testing Group (3) – Watched video, took a photo with their own smartphone, could not refer to photos later.

Hypothesis or formulated research question

As our questions were bridged between the marketing and academic research spheres, our solution was a holistic hybrid approach. We started with expert interviews, talking to a professor of cognitive psychology from the University of Toronto, a corporate memory trainer and a doctor from a major Toronto hospital specializing in memory loss. Armed with the insight from these discussions, and a deeper understanding of what memory is and how it functions, the study included a detailed experiment using electroencephalography (EEG).

What was the outcome of the research?

The study received the Best in Class research award, from the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association. The key to its success was twofold: an innovative, neurological approach to understanding the role of technology on the brain, and seamless collaboration between traditional and cutting edge research techniques.

The primary finding of the study was that taking a photo with a smartphone while watching a video makes the experience more enjoyable. This was not surprising considering that most people are very attached to their phones. However, it was interesting to note that although the experience was more enjoyable for those subjects permitted to take photos, the performance on a memory test when the photo was not used to aid recall was worse than the group who used the photo. Among those participants who watched the videos without taking a photo, the level of emotional engagement was not very high, however, they performed much better on the memory task. 

In addition, when we measured the level of emotional engagement while recalling the video, the group who did not take photos had a more positive reaction overall. One key takeaway is this: if you’re watching a concert, try to resist taking too many photos and simply take in the experience. Not only will you remember the event in more detail, but you will treasure the memory and recall it with ease.


Marketing is the art of assigning meaning to a brand or product, and it all begins with being engaging and memorable. Our research suggests that customers are less likely to remember brands’ messaging now than they were in the past. The ease with which details can be delegated to devices means people expend less effort engaging with ads and processing their messages. While the best brands and the best marketing campaigns are unforgettable, marketers have to work harder to build those memories and associations, avoiding the pitfalls of our growing reliance on technology; and building on our love and enjoyment – at a neural level – of our devices. 

The research presents both challenges and lessons for researchers. Much of traditional market research is based on recollection and recalled opinions: what did you buy in the last three months, how did you feel about that choice, what were your thoughts on this brand. Simply relying on memories is not reliable, so researchers need to be creative and complement traditional research with consumer neuroscience in order to continue producing accurate and valuable insights. Passively collected data become more important, and there is increasing value to incorporating a real-life, in-moment exploration of consumers’ decisions. Fortunately, the results also show some of the tools to do this, with respondents’ increasing love of photography and smartphones being just two gateways into these moments.

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today