This Is Your Brain On Viral Ideas

Did you know that there is a part of your brain that decides whether an idea is worth passing on to your friends?

This Is Your Brain On Viral Ideas

What makes an idea spread? As you read this, there are likely thousands of meetings at different news publications, advertising firms, and government agencies trying to crack that code. But rather than trying to decipher an idea’s inherent value–or the value of its packaging–a team of neuroscientists and social psychologists recently decided to look into the human brain.


What they found could revolutionize the way the market of ideas is governed. First, UCLA psychology professor Matt Lieberman and Emily Falk, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s communication neuroscience lab, recruited 19 undergraduate UCLA “interns” to go through an fMRI scanner and receive pitches for films. Next, the interns discussed the merits and faults of those ideas on a tape that would be reviewed by 79 undergrad “producers.” Afterwards, the producers ranked those pitches by the likelihood that they would recommend them to someone else.

Researchers found that there was one consistent indicator of a successful idea, and it had little to do with the idea itself or even the interns’ intentions to sell it. Instead, the probability that a producer would go on to recommend a pitch was traced back to intern brain activity in one region of the mind–the bilateral TPJ, or the part of the brain which shifts our attention to focus on the minds of other people–that was picked up by the scanner.

“We kind of thought that while someone was in the scanner, someone would activate brain regions in committing things to memory or processing things deeply, and then the things that you processed more deeply you would be better at communicating,” Lieberman tells Co.Exist. “Instead, we see this network associated with thinking about the minds of other people. I don’t think we realize that we’re filtering ideas about the world in that way.”

“I was actually really surprised that there were these relatively queer neural signals that tell us about the success of ideas beyond the person’s brain we were looking at,” Falk says.

Falk and Lieberman are also in the middle of writing a follow-up study to predict whether test subjects who viewed movie trailers would then go share news of those trailers on Facebook. They call this phenomenon the “buzz effect,” and it comes down to whether the “salesperson” activated his or her TPJ, part of something called the mentalizing network, when receiving the initial idea.

The mentalizing network, Lieberman explains (and discusses further in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, his book arriving in October), is the part of our brain that takes us out of our own solipsistic bubbles and focuses on how the information we communicate will be received. It’s also a reflexive process, Lieberman’s observes. One strange quality of the mentalizing network, for example, is that whenever someone is given a task–a math problem, a reading assignment–and then a break, the mentalizing network switches on automatically during that rest period.


“The uninteresting explanation is we’re living in a social world and when we have a break we turn on the mentalizing network and think about the people in our lives. But this network is really wired to come on like a reflex whenever we finish a mental activity,” Lieberman says. “That’s an important and surprising feature of human nature. Our brain bets on putting a social lens on the world, because over evolution that lens turned out to be useful in putting on the social lens. The more an individual turns on this network, the better they do on the things that require this mentalizing ability.”

Falk and Lieberman are interested in finding out how to develop that mentalizing network, but they don’t have the answers yet. “Are there mental exercises you could do in a meditation or schoolbase regimen that could help you turn on the mentalizing network?” Lieberman asks. It’s something Lieberman and Falk will continue to investigate in their respective labs.

But more science needs to be done. Falk and Lieberman are also looking into real-world applications–Lieberman’s focused on advertising, while Falk’s lab looks at public health and tobacco messaging.

“Now that we know where to look in the brain, can we prospectively predict those messages spreading?” Falk asks. “And also, what are the boundary conditions? Does this work when we’re only talking about relatively simple ideas?”

When I suggested that Lieberman find a Don Draper type and scan his brain, he laughs. “It’s already sort of happening,” he says.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.