Brain 'Buzz': Scientists Discover How Ideas and Information Spread

First Posted: Jul 08, 2013 07:39 AM EDT

How ideas spread and become popular among vast groups of people has long remained a mystery to scientists. Known as "buzz," this phenomenon in the brain increases the likelihood that a message will be passed along to others. Now, researchers have taken a significant step toward identifying for the first time the brain regions associated with buzz. The findings could have major implications for more persuasive advertisements and better ways for teachers to communicate with students.

People are naturally wired to share information with others. Humans communicate ideas and thoughts continuously, which possibly explains the huge popularity of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Although researchers knew about our tendencies to impart information to others, though, they didn't know exactly what brain regions were associated with ideas that become contagious, spreading like a virus. In order to examine this particular phenomenon a bit better, the researchers looked at 19 UCLA students.

In the first part of the study, the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to scan the brains of the students. During this scan, the participants watched and heard information about 24 potential television pilot ideas. These shows included everything from Spanish soap operas to a program about teenage vampires and werewolves.

After being scanned and being exposed to these shows, the students were asked to envision themselves as television studio interns who needed to decide whether or not they would recommend each idea to their producers. The participants made videotaped assessments of each pilot and then another group of 79 UCLA undergraduates were asked to act as the producers. This new group of students watched the video assessments and then made their own ratings based on them.

So what did the researchers find? It turns out that the students who were especially good at persuading their "producers" showed significantly more activation in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ, at the time they were first exposed to the pilot ideas they later recommended. Called the "salesperson effect," the activation of this region shows exactly how much an idea resonated with the students.

The TPJ itself is located on the outer surface of the brain, in what is known as the brain's "mentalizing network." This part of the brain is involved in thinking about what other people think and feel. The network also includes the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is located in the middle of the brain.

"The explosion of new communication technologies, combined with novel analytic tools, promises to dramatically expand our understanding of how ideas spread," said Emily Falk, the lead author of the study, in a news release. "We're laying basic science foundations to address important public health questions that are difficult to answer otherwise-about what makes campaigns successful and how we can improve their impact."

The findings could have important implications for understanding what attracts people to a certain idea. This, in turn, could be huge for advertising and other industries that deal in the spread of information and ideas.

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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