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What Does the Brain do When it Hears a Question ?

Questions hijack the brain. The moment you hear one, the brain literally can’t think of anything else.

For example, what color is your residence ?

After hearing that question, what are you thinking about ? The obvious answer is the color of your place. Though this exercise may seem ordinary, it has profound implications. The question momentarily hijacked your thought process and focused it entirely on where you live. You didn’t consciously tell your brain to think about that – it did so automatically.

Questions are powerful since hearing a question affects what the brain does in that instant, can influence behavior, determine follow on thoughts, etc.

The Importance of  “ Asking Good Questions “ – to direct the Brain

Questions trigger a mental reflex known as “ instinctive elaboration ”. When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate much else.

Research in neuroscience has found that the human brain is designed to think about one idea at a time. So when you ask somebody a question, you force their minds to consider only your question. As neuroscientist John Medina puts it in his book Brain Rules, “ Research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously ”.  Likewise, Nobel Prize–winning economist Herbert Simon has written that human beings consciously “ operate largely in serial fashion. The more demanding the task, the more we are single-minded.” !

Behavioral scientists have also found that just asking people about their future influences decisions – a phenomenon known as the “ mere measurement effect ”.  From 1993 research, social scientists Vicki Morwitz, Eric Johnson, and David Schmittlein conducted a study with more than 40,000 participants that revealed simply asking people – “ What are your plans for getting a new car within 6 months ? ” – increased their purchase rates by 35 % !

According to an earlier study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, asking citizens whether they’re going to vote in an upcoming election increases the likelihood that they will by 25 %.  From another study in 2008, researchers found that asking about one’s intention to give blood raised donation rates by 8.6 %.  The same effect has been found in studies involving computer sales, exercise frequency, and disease prevention.  In each case, all these behaviors can be increased just by asking about them !

Inquiring Your Way – To Benefit from the Brain’s Capabilities

So why do questions have such influence on the brain and decision making ?

First and foremost, a question prompts the brain to contemplate a behavior, which increases the probability that it will be acted upon. In fact, decades of research found the more the brain contemplates a behavior, the more likely it is to engage in it. Further, just thinking about doing something can shift perception and even alter body chemistry. For instance, imagine sipping some lemon juice. What does it taste like ?  As you think about it, notice a sensation in your mouth. You’ll find that something totally beyond your control occurs — you begin to salivate (if you like lemon juice) and can almost taste the flavor. Or, if you don’t like it or not familiar with lemon juice, then an opposite reaction occurs !

To benefit by how the brain operates –

  1. In your next conversation or presentation, ask for audience insights or feedback on the subject matter 
  2. When discussing a product capability, ask – “ If you had this feature, how would you use it ? ”

….   to engage with people  –  versus talking to or at them

When doing this, realize you don’t always need to wait for an answer since the question guides the listener to mentally determine how they could use or benefit from what is being talked about.

If they respond in kind, then continue with evolving the conversation, the thinking, etc.

If they don’t engage as expected, either improve your communication skills, better articulate a compelling value proposition, or move on to another opportunity or task !

You can also use questions to gain an edge in a new initiative that requires factual information and opinions.  This is important since scientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), found that questions requiring participants to disclose their opinions increased neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.  As a result, a question like, “ Based on what’s happening, where do you see opportunities ? ”  –  makes people think about the future. This helps develop a shared understanding of what’s needed to move forward.


While questions are ingrained in human communication, it’s easy to underestimate their impact on our brains. Yet science and the experiences of people good at asking questions has proven that questions are very effective to fast track learning, becoming more knowledgeable, facilitate exploring opportunities, strengthening connections between people, gaining influence, etc.

With many ways to learn, achieve goals, realize potential, make innovation more rewarding, etc. – “Asking good questions“ is the fastest way to focus attention on a subject and learn about it. 

This is important to acquiring the knowledge and competencies needed to improve the quality and timeliness of –

A.  High Caliber Look Ahead
B.  Strategic Thinking
C.  Decision Making – for better outcomes
D.  Follow up Action / Plan Execution
E.  Making Good on Opportunity
F.  Pivoting / Effecting Change / Being Agile
G.  Avoiding Issues and Mitigating Risk

Given these significant benefits and the importance of “ Innovating for Impact “, asking good questions and engaging with others having high competencies is a game changing advantage.

If interested in learning more, please contact CAIL.

Nov 30, 2021  by David Hoffeld / CAIL        Innovation commentary        905-940-9000