Scientists Have Discovered Exactly What Makes Something Go Viral


Online content thrives on what is relatable or easy to digest, making viral content something which is immensely popular. From online video to articles, there is always something which catches someone’s eyes and sets it apart from the rest. So how does this occur? How does the brain predict what will become viral based on signals? UCLA psychologists have taken a step towards understanding the mechanisms in the brain which make what they are calling the “buzz,” thus getting excited about and helping to spread ideas.

Emily Faulk, lead author of the study, noted that before this study little was known on how well the brain can communicate ideas. The findings, which were published in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science, was done in two parts.

In the first part, 19 UCLA students “underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they saw and heard information about 24 potential television pilot ideas.” The students were exposed to these TV pilots, which were presented by a separate group of students, and then were told to imagine themselves as television studio interns who decided whether or not to recommend each pilot idea to their “producers.” Videotaped assessments were made of each pilot by the students. A group of 79 UCLA undergraduate students served as the “producers.” These students watched the interns’ video assessments then made their own ratings based on those assessments. On completing the study, Faulk said: “Now we have mapped the brain regions associated with ideas that become and are associated with being a good ‘idea salesperson.’” She noted that in the future, they would be likely to be able to use the brain maps to look forward and see what ideas are likely to succeed along with who might be the most effective in spreading those ideas. For example, Faulk pointed out: “As I’m looking at an idea, I might be thinking about what other people are likely to value, and that might make a better idea salesperson later.”

So what does help to cause that “buzz” in the brain to communicate ideas? It’s understanding neural activity in the brain and using that information to activate regions. Psychologists predict that with this information they could be able to “predict which advertisements are likely to spread and go viral and which will be most effective.” It was also pointed out that such information could benefit public health campaigns, particularly those aimed at combating cancer, smoking, and obesity. It could very well change how ideas are spread. Faulk noted, “The explosion of new communication technologies, combined with novel analytic tools, promises to dramatically expand our understanding of how ideas are spread.”

From music on the radio to social media preferences, the brain is able to cultivate information in a broad and unique way. The research presented could have various outcomes, including successful health campaigns, more persuasive advertisements, and better ways for teachers to communicate with students. It can help predict what can go viral and how the brain will react to those ideas.