Late one afternoon, while attending college, I was reading Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella written around the dawn of the 20th century. I had just finished a paragraph and realized the unusual richness and beauty of the image that had lifted off the page and seared into my mind. I savored the mental image, taking time to notice its high resolution, saturate color, and three-dimensional depth, all with exceptional clarity and brilliance. I was amazed that Conrad could stimulate such an image in my mind.
Stepping out of my reverie, I shut the book and decided to write my own paragraph describing the image, which was showing no sign of diminishing in my mind. In the experiment, I wanted to work backwards from the final image to discover the beginning words, hoping to learn something about writing from a true master. I worked hard at it, imagining myself in Conrad’s mind, looking at the blank sheet before him. Finally, pleased with my finished paragraph, I re-opened Heart of Darkness and placed Conrad’s paragraph next to mine, side by side.
His words were so powerful and mine so pale that I was truly embarrassed sitting alone at my desk. It was a great lesson in how ignorant I could be and how masterful Conrad was. But I was also enchanted by the new grace I saw in his words. At each decision point, I saw my poor choices compared to his brilliant ones, opening my eyes to what was possible. I began to see distinctions he made while working the words, seeing how style contributes to meaning. One particular distinction seemed to reverberate into the recesses of my mind: The pattern of his sentence structures. Something about their arrangements within the sentences and within the paragraph seemed to guide the image into my mind.
In one sentence structure, for instance, he wrote a main independent clause, followed by a series of dependent clauses, each clause elaborating on the main clause:
This pattern reminded me of a Bach fugue, in which Bach would compose the main theme and then repeat fragments of the theme through a modulation sequence, the fragments stepping from one key down to the next like footsteps on a stair, where, at the bottom, we sense a completion.
This pattern further reminded me of a crab, where the large frontal claws protrude as the main theme, then the smaller legs repeat along the sides toward the back, just like Conrad’s dependent clauses and Bach’s theme fragments.
Claw__leg1__leg2__leg3__leg4 . . .
As each main thesis is followed by variations that elaborate the thesis, I began referring to this particular pattern as repetition with variation and elaboration.
As I pondered why Conrad’s paragraph seemed to slide into my mind so easily, I began to see repetition with variation and elaboration everywhere in enduring works from human history, from the columns in the Parthenon to the arches in the Alhambra; from the rhythms in Shakespeare sonnets to the inverted pitches in Beethoven’s late string quartets; from the round dabs in Monet’s water lilies to the rounded corners of Apple’s iMac.
And like the crab legs, we see this pattern everywhere in nature: In the arms and legs of horses, humans, frogs; in the tentacles of jellyfish; in the branches of trees. But we don’t see it in mountain rock or dirt or water or non-musical sound waves. As we can see, repetition with variation and elaboration is a primary feature that distinguishes Life from Non-Life.
I speculated that our ancestors needed to distinguish Life from Non-Life as a matter of survival. If so, under evolutionary pressure, we would have inherited deep within our genetic predispositions a bias to respond to this pattern when it appears at the periphery of our nervous system. Perhaps our nervous system, far below our conscious mind, lights up as part of its fundamental investment in survival when detecting repetition with variation and elaboration.
Could it be that Conrad had created an unusually rich image in my mind because he tailored his words to resemble patterns found in Life and because my ancient nervous system was predisposed to notice such patterns? And could it be that my paragraph failed to light up my mind because it didn’t resemble any such pattern? Could there be other patterns or structures that our nervous system is biased to notice that could point to why one message penetrates deeper, endures longer, inspires more than another?
Such questions intrigued me throughout my career. I explored them while studying writing, music, art, architecture, design, programming; while studying enduring works of human effort, dating back from the earliest known artifacts around 75,000 BC through to today; while studying performance; and while examining excellence in creativity and business.
I also explored them while studying neuroscience, where we can see incoming signals either lighting up the mind or failing to go anywhere, and where we can begin to correlate lit up patterns in the brain with such experiences as customer preference—a valuable correlation to any corporation spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their messages.
I am impressed to this day, thirty years later, that I still see the rich image that lit up my mind as I read Conrad’s paragraph—and, if an MRI machine had been scanning my brain back then, I can envision the results on a computer monitor—my brain wildly lighting up among the nooks and crannies. Those many years ago, sitting at my desk, I stepped backward from the rich image in my mind to the origin, deconstructing the final image to inform the beginning words. With the help of neuroscience, we can now do a much better job, allowing insights from the receiving mind to inform the message creation.
For instance, neuroscientists tell us that the nervous system does not receive the message as a single, whole perception, but rather as many separate signals. It further transforms these separate signals, mixing them with signals from higher brain functions, even within the first couple of synapses, as if the higher brain functions are saying, some neuroscientists speculate, give me a little more of this, a little less of that, skewing the signals as they make their way through the system.
Guided by cues among the many threads of the incoming message and from signals arriving from elsewhere in the brain, it routes the separate signals along many branching paths toward specialized neurons, which further process the split signals. As an example of how precise these cues can be, the nervous system notices angles in the incoming message and splits this tiny detail from the whole, routing it along a specific path to specialty neurons that process, say, 45-degree angles. But when the system detects a 48-degree angle, it routes the signal along another path to other specialty neurons. Such a single signal goes along on its own path, a tiny thread split from the whole.
Then, like a loomist, the nervous system weaves the many split off threads into a composite representation—perhaps one as lit up as the image in my mind after reading Conrad’s paragraph—that we somehow sense as whole and stable. It composes this final representation, having already skewed the separate incoming signals, as the meaningful message we perceive.
In reversing this course in our imagination, we can view the incoming message as a collection of disparate cues that the nervous system will guide onto separate perceptual rails. This means that we can compose the message as independent layers of distinctive cues, guiding us to create messages through higher levels of abstraction, just as Conrad no doubt created his paragraph. We can imagine Conrad, at each decision point in creating his message, nudging his words intuitively toward these cues, one major cue being repetition with variation and elaboration.
If we had a list of such cues, though profoundly challenging and perhaps counter-intuitive, we could step through it as we compose our messages, integrating each cue into the message, careful to include as many as possible—all the while expecting the receiver’s nervous system to more likely guide them onto the rails of perception, lighting up the mind while coursing their way through, leaving a richer impression. Such a list would be powerful. I suspect such mental routines operate down in the unconscious depths of great artistic minds.
Over the past thirty-five years, I’ve followed these ideas, branching from repetition with variation and elaboration to include many other such connections between the message cues and the rails of the mind, exploring why some messages light up the mind while others dissipate into oblivion. Writing books, directing films, launching campaigns, running businesses, composing music, creating art, counseling people, guiding performers—all became lab experiments, allowing me to explore the dimensions of these ideas. The result is a robust model of grace, beauty, and value in communications, for which I’ve coined the term zeriosantalios.
We have two outstanding neuroscientists on our team, and we are prepared to develop tests of zeriosantalios and its effects on our perception and subjective experiences. Fortunately, however, we have a real-world, somewhat controlled case study—the Batman feature film franchise. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. produced six versions of these films, each operating in a common milieu—same fictional characters and themes to the story; similar high-profile, high-box-office actors and directors; similar budgets and distribution; similar marketing. In essence, they are different versions of the same message and its creation. However, the first four films express very little zeriosantalios, while the last two express quite a lot, with the sixth one unusually rich with zeriosantalios.
For a quick example of zeriosantalios in The Dark Knight, the sixth in the series, Christopher Nolan, the director, opens the film like Bach opens a fugue: a rich theme that he repeats and varies with elaboration throughout the rest of the film. Nolan begins the theme with five Jokers, the nemesis of Batman. One by one, each Joker kills one of the other Jokers, until one last Joker is standing—the real Joker. With a subtle touch, most of the camera angles are shot on their right sides. In the next sequence, another repetition with variation and elaboration, Nolan opens with five Batman characters and, one by one, Batman ties up each of the other Batman imposters until he is the last one standing—the real Batman, this time shot primarily on their left sides. The theme expresses a mirror sequence, the left and right halves of the hero and the villain, with the five coming down to one pattern, repeated and varied with elaboration.
The theme is especially pregnant for the remaining scenes. In the opening sequence, while killing off the other Jokers, the real Joker is robbing a bank owned and run by the mob. In essence, he is breaking the law to take out criminals, so is he really a criminal? Or is he a hero? In the mirror sequence, Batman, while tying up the other Batman imposters, captures criminals. In essence, he is breaking the law to capture criminals, so is he really a hero? Or is he a criminal? As the movie unfolds, each scene repeating and varying and elaborating on this duality, a new character emerges to symbolize the two sides: Two-Face.
This example offers only a taste of how Nolan tailored the last two films with zeriosantalios. The faces, masks, words, characters, themes—all knit together with zeriosantalios with the same precision that Beethoven knits the themes in his symphonies. Ordinarily, audiences do not consciously notice these subtle tailorings, but drift into the deeper subjective experiences the message intends to deliver. (For a full analysis, see Appendix 2: Zeriosantalios in Batman Begins and Appendix 3: Zeriosantalios in The Dark Knight). We cannot find examples of zeriosantalios in the first four films. This means that, with all six films sharing a remarkably common milieu and the only major difference being the absence and presence of zeriosantalios, we should see a difference in value in the last two films—and we do, a spectacular difference.
Many variables contribute to the success or failure of a film, but for any variable of the common milieu we might examine in these six films, none reasonably account for the outstanding difference of the last two. (For full financial data on the franchise, see Appendix 4: Batman Franchise Financial Data). For instance, the production costs of these films have a somewhat wide variation, but viewers have become accustomed to higher quality production values and general production costs have increased, so it is unlikely that this variable would create such an increase in sales. The same can be said for marketing dollars: while Warner spent more on The Dark Knight, we believe it increased the dollar amount as sales increased, riding the wave to draw maximum value from its hot-selling asset. Otherwise, Warner spent marketing dollars in line with expected sales. And again, the percentage increase in marketing dollars would not account for the disproportionate increase in revenues.
We can see more of the story in the numbers. The first film did very well for Warner, and we attribute this value to being first, a value that should never be underestimated. The next three films under perform, a not too unusual response of sequels. At this point in the story, with four similar films under their belts, traditional marketers would normally believe they have enough data to predict the market for Batman feature films. They could generate a complete business model for this kind of business, not expecting the soaring results that are possible when the cues and patterns of zeriosantalios kick in to light up an audience. They, no doubt, are astonished by the results: whoever heard of such vast improvements in fifth and sixth sequels?
To see another dimension to the story, lets now compare opening weekend and DVD sales.
Notice that the first five films had similar opening weekend sales (o.w.), even the first film with zeriosantalios. With a similar opening weekend to the previous four films, we can surmise that all things were more or less equal at the launch of the fifth film: It had no extra marketing dollars or other variable to indicate the unusual increase in sales that occurs later in DVD sales. In other words, at the opening of the film, the producers and the market experienced a similar, expected exchange of values with the fifth film as they had experienced with the first four.
Now look at the opening weekend sales for the sixth film, one of the largest in film history. Why were people so eager to see the sixth film and not the previous five? The answer lies in the DVD sales of the fifth film, which shot up remarkably. As moviegoers watched the fifth film, we believe they experienced the higher subjective qualities that come with zeriosantalios, and they spread the word, neighbor to neighbor, which takes time. We can see this delay in the rise of the fifth film’s DVD sales, which occurs later in the sales cycle.
This delay, we believe, represents one cost of not being first and of not setting the standard. Being fifth in line, the movie had to overcome the audience’s expectation of a more mediocre experience, a process that also takes time—the process we also see in the swell of later DVD sales. In other words, the fifth film met all mediocre expectations of the previous four films except in the later DVD sales, where the excellence from zeriosantalios continued to energize the audiences. Such an increase so late in the sales cycle, we surmise, comes primarily from word-of-mouth sharing, the best possible evidence of a genuine shift to a richer subjective experience, one that equates to more value.
The swell in the fifth film’s DVDs set up the sixth film’s tremendous opening weekend. Now riding the shift in expectations, the two films “communicate” to each other in the minds of the recipients, an expected outcome of multiple assets with zeriosantalios.
So while we can examine many variables, none from the common milieu explain the spectacular differences of the last two films. Neuroscientists point us to the content variables as the difference that make the difference in lighting up the mind, where they stimulate the critical activity within the first few microseconds of the nervous system’s response. From neursoscientists and businessmen, we know that when the content contains polymorphism and simultaneous expressions, two variables of zeriosantalios, the content lights up more areas of the mind and leads to richer subjective experiences like customer preference. And we know from similar variables to polymorphism and simultaneity and by extrapolating from messages that have lit up the mind since our earliest known artifacts that we can describe those cues in the content. And these descriptions hardly apply to the first four films, but apply directly to the last two films. Therefore, the absence or presence of zeriosantalios spells the difference between mediocre and spectacular performance among these otherwise similar films.
But why do we see the truly sensational results in the sixth film, The Dark Knight? Not only did Christopher Nolan implement zeriosantalios better in this film, but he utilized a powerful aspect of zeriosantalios that, besides ourselves, we have never seen anyone else do before: He split zeriosantalios into two layers, a surface layer and an invisible layer that lies emergent in the mind.
For example, we see and hear the five Jokers and the five Batman characters reducing one by one to one in the opening theme, but duality emerges between the comparison. We don’t see and hear duality, but sense it emerge at multiple levels: which Joker is the real Joker (is this one real or unreal? Is that one real or unreal?); which Batman is the real Batman; which one is the hero or the villain; Joker kills the other Jokers, Batman only ties up the other Batman impostors, so the duality of hero and villain seems to separate on whether one is a murderer or not, but Two-Face, flipping between hero and villain, eventually becomes a murderer and the hero for the city, though not the real hero, further playing duality, murder, and who is the real hero or villain with repetition and variation and elaboration; and so on. The duality and its many different meanings, all told with zeriosantalios, unify the surface expressions in the film, but occur as a separate, emergent layer. This emergent layer sits somewhere unseen and unheard, but perceived and responded to from cues in the surface layer.
In a broader example, we know that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the same story as Bernstein’s Westside Story, but if we look among the surface expressions of both stories—the characters, sets, props, words—we won’t find expressions of one in the other. We represent the connection between the two stories somewhere in our minds, somewhere as an emergent property of the comparison.
We believe it is not only possible to apply zeriosantalios to this separate, emergent layer, and that when we do, we create more powerful messages, but that this layer is required to unify vast and divergent surface expressions—such as those cast in a large conglomerate. We call this emergent layer the core story.