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What ideas are most likely to take off and which are most likely to bomb? Can the brain help us figure out why? In recent research, Matt Lieberman, Sylvia Morelli, Locke Welbourn, Kip Dambacher and I explored what differentiates ideas that bomb from ideas that go viral. We found that specific neural responses in the brains of initial idea recipients forecast an idea’s success with others whose brains are never examined and who are never exposed to the original information.

In particular, we found that parts of the brain implicated in thinking about the thoughts and feelings of others (the temporal parietal junction; TPJ) and reward (the ventral striatum) were more active in response to ideas that ultimately spread most successfully.  We also found that activity in TPJ was associated with increased ability to convince others to get on board with one’s favorite 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.

Together, these brain regions seem to contain information about which ideas will spread successfully and highlight the possibility that when we take in new information, we may already be preparing for how to transmit the ideas successfully to others. In the future, we may be able to use neural activity in these brain regions to forecast which ideas are most likely to spread or go viral and what kind of people and messages can best make that happen. Down the road, we hope that this kind of information can be used to create more effective public health campaigns that address issues major societal challenges such as obesity and cigarette smoking.

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