How Ideas Spread in the Brain
Christina Sarich, Staff Writer
Just like messages can go viral on social media or over other Internet sites, our brain has ways to help create a ‘buzz’ over certain ideas so that they spread to other parts of our gray matter.
Thanks to a new study from psychologists at UCLA, significant steps have been taken toward identifying brain regions that help to spread ideas. The researchers say the findings are important because it could help with public health campaigns, more persuasive arguments in advertising, and more efficient ways of teaching students new ideas in school. For those of us who want to control our own intellects more profoundly, it would be wise to know which areas main-stream media will target with this new found information.
The lead researcher of the study, Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA said:
“Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they’re seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves but to other people. . .We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds.”
No wonder Facebook and other social media sites blew up overnight. They were counting on a basic human instinct – to share information.
The study has been published in Psychological Science, and in it scientists discuss how ideas become ‘contagious’ in the mind. The researchers have mapped the areas of the brain that are most likely to help a message go viral, by acting as a ‘salesperson’ for the information being shared through different neural pathways. In the future, brain maps could be used to see which ideas are most likely to be successful and who is likely to be effective at spreading the message.
Utilizing brain scans from magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers mapped the response of 19 UCLA students to see how they would respond to 24 fictitious television plots. It is this information that was presented to the experiment participants to map brain areas. Lieberman and Falk wanted to learn which brain regions were activated when the interns were first exposed to information they would later pass on to others.
“We’re constantly being exposed to information on Facebook, Twitter and so on,” said Lieberman. “Some of it we pass on, and a lot of it we don’t. Is there something that happens in the moment we first see it — maybe before we even realize we might pass it on — that is different for those things that we will pass on successfully versus those that we won’t?”
It turns out that the pretend television plots that were better at persuading their audience had resulted in more activity in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) when the study’s subjects were first exposed to an idea they would later recommend, in this case, the TV plot. They had more activation in this region than the interns who were less persuasive and more activation than they themselves had when exposed to plot ideas they didn’t like. The psychologists termed this the “salesperson effect.”
“It was the only region in the brain that showed this effect,” Lieberman said. The researchers expected the areas of the brain associated with memory to light up on the fMRI scans, but the TPJ was the only area that responded.
“We wanted to explore what differentiates ideas that bomb from ideas that go viral,” Falk said. “We found that increased activity in the TPJ was associated with an increased ability to convince others to get on board with their favorite ideas. Nobody had looked before at which brain regions are associated with the successful spread of ideas. You might expect people to be most enthusiastic and opinionated about ideas that they themselves are excited about, but our research suggests that’s not the whole story. Thinking about what appeals to others may be even more important.”
The TPJ, located on the outer surface of the brain, is part of what is known as the brain’s “mentalizing network,” which is involved in thinking about what other people think and feel. The network also includes the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, located in the middle of the brain.
“Good ideas turn on the mentalizing system,” said Falk. “They make us want to tell other people.” This can translate as a good joke or an interesting piece of information, and yes, even a juicy piece of gossip. Through watching the activity of neurons and neuronal messaging in these brain regions, researchers could eventually predict just which ideas were most likely to go viral – just like the millions of messages that travel over the Internet have helped crowd out the mainstream media’s messages.
You can imagine both the benevolent and non-altruistic possibilities for this discovery. The more researchers know how to control our thoughts, the more important it will become for us to learn how to use discernment in the dissemination of information. It is perhaps this reason that adepts have told us for centuries that we need to tame the monkey mind.
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.
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