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article imageEssential Science: Neuroscience insights into our online habits

By Tim Sandle     Mar 13, 2017 in Science
Philadelphia - When we scan social media what triggers a reaction? How do we decide to share an article or a video? Why does a video of a cat chasing puppies appeal one week, whereas a video of another animal not? Neuroscientists have been investigating.
The focus of a new investigation has been with what is happening to the human brain when a person engages with social media, especially the ‘triggers’ that lead a person to share a video or an article (and where sufficient numbers do so the video ‘goes viral’; this is an abstract term, there's no specific number of shares, likes, retweets, reblogs, or whatever other measure of interaction needed to be reached in order for it to claim "viral" status.)
This type of interaction has gripped the attention of Annenberg School for Communication researchers, who are based at the University of Pennsylvania. To understand human engagement with social media the researchers turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (fMRI) in order to assess the level of brain activity underway when articles are read. They were also keen to assess what is involved with the decision process where a person decides to share or not to share an article or video.
Reading the brain through fMRI
With the technique adopted, functional magnetic resonance imaging is a neuroimaging procedure that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This method is based on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled. Here, when an area of the brain is in use, the blood flow to that region also increases.
The study, led by Christin Scholz and Elisa Baek, has shown how the patterns of brain activity are predictable when a person decides to share an article. Their study also allowed a further, reliable, prediction to be made as to whether the shared content will ‘go viral’ (that is, be shared and viewed at a relatively high rate).
What happens to or brains when we engaged with social media?
Illustration of neurons in action.
Illustration of neurons in action.
nobeastsofierce / Fotolia
The reviewer of the study, Dr. Emily Falk has outlined to Laboratory Roots how certain areas in the brain play a part in the decision to share an article via social media. She comments: "people are interested in reading or sharing content that connects to their own experiences, or to their sense of who they are or who they want to be. They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light."
With making the decision, the act of sharing is not so much related to a supposition that someone’s friends will enjoy a particular article or video. Instead the decision to share rests on whether the shared content would make a person appear smarter, friendlier, or nicer in the eyes of their friends. These three factors act as individual triggers, meaning that one person could be thinking that an article will make their friends laugh, whereas a different person might think that sharing the same article will help their friend solve a particular problem. The motivations differ, but they can be bunched around a narrow set of factors. In addition, irrespective of which of the three factors was at play, the same area of the brain was active.
What triggers us to share a 'lifestyle choice' article or video?
New York Times Website
The New York Times launched a new feature on its website called "Extra" that shows more content on its front page. Critics say it clutters the page, adding far too many headlines to click on.
Screen grab by digitaljournal.com
To come to this conclusion, the researchers took a series of on-line articles relating to similar subject matter from the New York Times and showed them to a group of test subjects. The subjects were 18-to-24-year-olds, mostly university students living around Philadelphia. The articles related to health lifestyle choices, fitness or nutrition. Each of the articles had a similar word count.
Test subjects were given the headlines of the articles together with abbreviated descriptions of articles. The subjects then decided whether to share them or not. As these decisions were made the researchers measured brain activity via the brain scanners. Those areas of the brain indicating elevated activity were those involved with imagining what others might think and self-reflection. Building on this, the researchers next developed a model designed to predict which types of articles were likely to be shared more often. This related to the types of articles that generated the greatest amount of brain activity.
An example of online education
An example of online education
Helgi Halldórsson (CC BY-SA 2.0)
With the analysis, the researchers found that certain articles seem to strike the same chord in different people’s brains (generally these are of the type that surprise the reader, containing something they weren’t necessarily familiar with or have a type of practical tip – in the context of health and nutrition). This suggests that similar motivations and similar norms are driving the behavior for article sharing and subsequent response to a shared article, and that there are common groups of things that have value in general society. How these values shift over time is perhaps the subject for a different study.
The purpose of the study was to contribute to our understanding of the power of social media. As an article or story becomes viral this happens is through 4 billion Facebook messages, 500 million tweets, and 200 billion emails, which are shared daily. Many of these articles impact on our understanding of health, political, and social issues. However, articles are not shared equally. For those keen to get a message across, whether they are an advertiser, politician or news outlet, gaining more information about this aids the way content is generated and worded. To reiterate the answer, as to why something goes viral, it appears to come down to our sense of worth.
The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with the paper titled “A neural model of valuation and information virality.” A follow-up article is to be published in the journal Psychological Science (called “The Value of Sharing Information: A Neural Account of Information Transmission.”)
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week the subject was nuclear fusion, and a new technological path to creating an unlimited supply of ‘green’ energy. The previous week we looked at the deadly nerve agent VX and its role in political assassinations.
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