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Because specific areas of our brain have been shown to actively combine when reading something we like and want to share, researchers can use brain scans to predict which articles will go viral online.
By analyzing the brain activity of 80 test subjects, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania pinpointed which regions of the brain determine the value of sharing information. That value indicates the information’s likelihood of going viral.
Using MRI scans, the investigators measured participants’ brain activity while they read headlines and brief summaries of New York Times nutrition, fitness, and healthy-living articles. The readers also rated how likely they were to read each entire article, and share it.
The researchers expected that participants would think about themselves when choosing what to read, and to consider others when deciding what to share. However, the MRIs showed that whether selecting what to read or to share people think simultaneously about themselves and others.
"When you're thinking about what to read yourself and about what to share, both are inherently social, and when you're thinking socially, you're often thinking about yourself and your relationships to others," says researcher Elisa Baek. "Your self-concept and understanding of the social world are intertwined."
Further, the study revealed that activity in the mentalizing and self-related areas of the brain unconsciously combined to create the sense of an article’s value. That sense of value then predicts what people choose to share.
Although the study participants were 18 to 24 year olds living in the Philadelphia area - a different demographic than typical New York Times subscribers - their brain activity was used to predict the viral spread of articles among actual New York Times readers.
The researchers point out that while individuals may have different reasons for sharing an article (e.g., making people laugh, solving a problem), brain activity in areas correlated with self and social considerations seems to be a common denominator in value determination.
“The fact that the articles strike the same chord in different brains suggests that similar motivations and similar norms may be driving these behaviors,” says researcher Christin Scholz. “Similar things have value in our broader society."
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