Behind the Headlines

MATLAB and Simulink behind today’s news and trends

Neuro imaging used to predict which stories go viral

Marketers are continually searching for ways to make their content go viral. A quick Google search of “what will go viral” returned over 10 million results. And it’s no wonder when you consider the potential audience across social media channels: Facebook alone reported over 1.23 billion users active daily, generating an average of 4 million likes per minute.

But how can you predict what will go viral? How did the debate on the color of a dress amass millions of shares and coverage on The New York Times and CNN? And the BBC interview with a South Korean expert professor Robert E. Kelly that was hilariously hijacked by his kids? The video was viewed over 84 million times on the BBC Facebook page within days.

Much like a Facebook newsfeed algorithm, our brains have devised an algorithm to decide what content we should share.


Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say your brain decides what you share. More specifically, you subconsciously decide what articles are share-worthy based on factors including the value of the article to you personally and your feelings on how sharing the article would make you look to your extended network.

“So each time you read an article, your brain calculates the value of sharing or not sharing it, which then determines its virality—and it all happens pretty much unconsciously,” according to an article in Popular Science.

The research

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor study participants as they looked over 80 headlines and news story summaries from the New York Times, all relating to the same basic topic. fMRI tracks brain activity based on blood flow. The researchers monitored brain regions of interest (ROIs) related to self-related and social cognition.

They completed two studies on the subject and shared their results in the paper “A neural model of valuation and information virality,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Emily Falk, Ph.D., senior author and the director of University of Pennsylvania’s Communication Neuroscience Lab, explains how activity in specific regions of the brain indicates how valuable it would be to share information, and that value translates to its likelihood of going viral.

The paper states, “We focused on neural activity in theory-driven ROIs associated with key psychological processes (positive valuation, self-related, and social processing) measured while participants in two samples were exposed to headlines and abstracts of NYTimes health news articles. fMRI participants also provided ratings of the likelihood with which they would share each article with their Facebook friends.”


Whole-brain analyses of regions associated with each article’s rank of population-level sharing counts in study 1 and study 2. Image credit: PNAS.

Brain mapping

Neural activity was observed as the participants read the article titles and abstracts. MRI scanners from Siemens were used to collect neuroimaging data. The researchers then used Statistical Parametric Mapping (SPM), a widely-used package for fMRI image analysis. SPM refers to the construction and assessment of spatially extended statistical processes used to test hypotheses about functional imaging data.

The data showed information eliciting greater brain response in self-, social-, and in turn, value-related systems is more likely to be shared. The researchers concluded, “Taken together, our data support a parsimonious neurocognitive model of virality, one of the most prominent social phenomena in the 21st century, and shed light on the core functions of sharing—to express aspects of ourselves and to strengthen our social bonds.”

What topics go viral?

“While a lot of different, very specific recommendations on how to make things viral are floating around in the world—for instance, make content emotional—our work shows that there are really two underlying motives to share, which are deeply rooted in core human nature: We share to connect to others and to present ourselves in a positive light,” states study author Christin Scholz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.

“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,” explains Falk. “They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light.”

So, which topics are most likely to go viral? Of the 50+ “Behind the Headlines” blog posts to date, the article with the most shares just so happens to also relate to the field neuroscience.

Leave a comment to tell me what topics you’d like to see covered (and hopefully will share!)

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