What's the difference between ideas that bomb and ideas that go viral?
It may be that we're hard wired for sharing, and the ideas we spread are the ones we think will be interesting and useful to others, not just the ones we like ourselves. This potential communal pleasure actually sparks a measurable response in our brains.
Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles have for the first time identified regions of the brain associated with the successful spread of ideas, a finding that could have broad implications for public health campaigns, advertising, and better ways for teachers to communicate with learners.
The UCLA News describes work by Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology, psychiatry and behavioral science, and colleagues, who say brain data shows we are always alert for ideas and stories we think will amuse and engage others. "At our first encounter with information we are already using the brain network involved in how this can be interesting to other people," Lieberman told UCLA News writer Stuart Wolpert. "I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds."
Nineteen UCLA students had functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) brain scans while being presented with ideas for 24 fictitious TV pilots. They then made video taped evaluations of each pilot, and decided which ones they would recommend for production. Another group of 79 students played the role of producers, who watched the student assessment videos and came up with their own ratings. When students first saw the pilots they would later recommend, activity in the brain region known as the temporopareital junction, TPJ, markedly increased. Activity in the TPJ region was also higher in the brains of students who were most persuasive in pitching their favored pilots to the producers. The findings are reported in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science.
Lieberman explains that when we enter the minds of fictional characters in a book or a movie, or when we try to figure out what another real person is thinking or feeling, we're activating the brain's "mentalizing network." That network includes the TPJ, located on the outer surface of the brain, and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, located in the middle of the brain.
"Before this study, we didn't know what brain regions were associated with ideas that become contagious, and we didn't know what regions were associated with being an effective communicator of ideas," said Emily Falk, lead author of the journal article who was a researcher in Lieberman's lab and is now at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication. "Now we have mapped the brain regions associated with the ideas that are likely to be contagious and are associated with being a good idea salesperson. In the future we would like to be able to use these brain maps to forecast what ideas are likely to be successful and who is likely to be effective at spreading them." Interestingly, predictions based on neuroimaging may provide faster and more accurate indications of real-world outcomes than self-reporting by individuals.