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March 02, 2017

Will this story go viral? Penn researchers use MRIs to show you know the answer

When you begin reading an article with viral potential – one that you know will rack up a lot of likes from your Facebook friends and make you appear smarter, or at least well-informed, your brain glows.

More precisely, when you read something worth sharing, certain areas of your brain experience increased blood flow, which shows up on an MRI brain scan and is a sign of an uptick in neural activity. 

This interesting finding was the focus of a recent study led by University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. student Christin Scholz and published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study used MRIs to peer into the minds of participants as they read New York Times health study summaries.

As the research ultimately points out, some of the studies didn’t elicit much brain activity, and, therefore, they probably won’t be popping up on your newsfeed, while others caught fire and went viral.

One of the viral stories, for example, was this New York Times article about gluten-free diets, titled, "Gluten-Free, Whether You Need It or Not." Its summary read, "Avoiding gluten is a must for those with celiac disease, but many people are going gluten-free in a bid for a healthy diet."

As Scholz's findings, reported on by Popular Science, explain, the parts of the brain that light up when you read something worth sharing are the regions responsible for processing what makes you feel and look good internally and to others.

So the brain is subconsciously putting a value on the content to determine if it’s worth sharing, Scholz explains.

Scholz and fellow researchers plan to expand this work, which has the potential to become a useful future marketing tool to predict what consumers want.

Read more on the study at Popular Science.