Modern neuro-imaging techniques allow a more accurate answer to the question of which media content has a high chance of becoming popular and which does not. It also helps to identify brain areas responsible for different emotional reactions to narratives and establish the role of biases in processing the information. A group of scientists from HSE University and Aalto University published a review of recent scientific work in this area in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. It turned out that the most important parameters for prediction are the similarity and synchronisation of reactions of multiple subjects.
Narratives — holistic stories with an orderly narrative structure, plot, and storyline — have been all around us from birth. They come first in the form of fairy tales read to us by our parents, then in cartoons, board games and computer games. For adults, narratives are everywhere: oral stories, fiction and non-fiction, films, documentaries, music videos and commercials, even stories and videos in social media posts! All of them influence our emotions and decisions, forming the perception and evaluation of events. Neuro-imaging studies allow us to understand better how this happens, what types of content are involved and what ways of organizing them have the strongest effect.
Participants in one series of experiments were shown film trailers and had their brain activity measured using EEG and fMRI. In addition, they gave their own subjective reports of what emotions they experienced during the experiments. The scientists compared the electroencephalograms (EEGs) of people in the group, evaluating their degree of synchronization (coincidence) — how similarly the brains of different people were stimulated in the process of perceiving the same information. Then, using fMRI, the researchers studied in which specific areas of the brain the activity occurred; through self-reporting, they determined the emotional experiences with which this stimulation coincided.
It turned out that synchronization of people's brain activity in the process of information perception allowed accurate prediction of the future popularity and virulence of the information being presented. The more similar the brain activity recorded by the devices while watching trailers, the more popular the trailers eventually became, which encouraged more people to watch the film.
It turned out that the degree of coincidence of the EEGs that were studied predicted the popularity of the film more than 20 times more accurately than the behavioural prediction methods currently used in the film industry.
Scientists have also discovered that different areas of the brain are responsible for synchronized positive and negative emotional responses. Classical economics assumes that people always act rationally based on profit, but in real life emotions have a very strong influence on decision-making.
This finding has been confirmed by many behavioural studies. For example, Polish researchers have discovered that emotionally slanted statements of behavioural rules have a greater effect on people than neutral ones. Several American studies have identified and described the so-called heuristics of accessibility, in which people make decisions based on the intensity of memories or recollection of a dangerous event, rather than on actual probability, when assessing risks in a stressful situation. As a result, vividly described events seem more dangerous than they actually are. Other studies have shown that emotions are actively involved in making investment decisions as well as impulse purchases.
Confirming these findings, many neuro-imaging studies have recorded high levels of synchronization of brain activity in a group of subjects during emotionally engaging narratives. These studies have also provided insight into which brain areas are responsible for different emotions. It turns out that a strong emotional elevation correlates with synchronous excitation of brain regions related to the stimulation of the attention process and the visual cortex.
Negative emotions, in turn, caused synchronous excitation of the so-called ‘default mode network’. According to Finnish researchers who observed this effect, this finding suggests that negative emotional experiences activate the ‘freeze-fight-flight’ mode. The same brain structures are responsible for associative thinking; as a result of their excitation, a number of associations are triggered in people, allowing them to draw a picture in their imagination and make a decision under conditions of stress. All of this suggests that information that provokes a negative emotional reaction has a high probability of going viral and that there are biological reasons for this phenomenon.
Studies by French, German and American scientists have shown that high synchronization of people's brain activity when watching videos correlates with higher concentration, which, according to earlier works, is responsible for the temporoparietal node. It is known that activation of some areas of the temporal and parietal cortex is also observed in a state of anxiety (anxious anticipation). When these data are put together, it turns out that strong concentration due to excitation of the temporoparietal cortex can increase the level of anxiety during an exciting narrative.
Neuro-imaging studies also reveal how prejudice affects the way the human brain processes information. In a 2017 Finnish study, two groups of people were shown a dramatic film about a moral dilemma in a relationship between two sisters. The first group was told that the sisters were siblings, while the second group was told that they were not. Although more than 90% of the participants said it made no difference to them, the scientists recorded excitation of different brain regions depending on the input information, as well as reduced synchronization of brain activity in the group that thought the sisters were not siblings.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from a joint study by scientists at Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University (USA), in which two groups of volunteers were given a fragment of an audiobook; one group was told that the main character in the book was gripped by justified jealousy, while the other was told that his feelings were unfounded. As a result, the two groups had different synchronization of brain reactions, depending on the input. Differences were recorded in the ‘default mode network’, mirror neurons, the hippocampus and dorsal regions of brain regions that are responsible for the actualization of attention.
It also turned out that announcing that the story was fictional excited the ‘default mode network’, namely the precuneus region, more than when the story was announced to be real. This provides a better understanding of the difference in the perception of news that we believe to be true as opposed to news where the source is questionable.
Another Finnish study shows that the same video activates different parts of the brain if you mention beforehand whether it is a mystery or an interior design film. A joint study by scientists from Aalto University and HSE University found a similar effect if the audience is requested to empathize with the characters or make a moral assessment of what is happening. This sheds light on which parts of the brain are responsible for different cognitive and emotional processes and allows us to conclude that the brain engages them flexibly to process information, depending on the input conditions.
The data obtained allow us to better understand the mechanisms of influence of different information on human decision-making and behaviour. Results of the experiments can be of interest both to commercial companies and government institutions for creating effective commercial and educational audio-visual materials. They can also be useful in medicine for studying changes in the brain in certain psychiatric and neurological diseases. In addition, they open up considerable opportunities for future research and transport neuroscience to an entirely new level.
Author of the text: Lidia Khmelevskaya