04/15/2014 09:03 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Don't Attribute Posts That 'Go Viral' To Neuroscience

Internet titans such as Google's Larry Page now invoke neuroscience in human decision-making online. This is personally thrilling, because of my Internet work and my lifelong curiosity and support for neuroscience. Although neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, business leaders around the world spend large sums of money applying fashionable "neuroscience" Web-based solutions to try to predict consumer intentions using "machine learning". Try Googling how often the term "neuroscience" appears in Web company offerings.

What should give people in the Internet industry pause is that the brain is more complicated than a tweet. The medical objective of neuroscience is to help people who suffer from brain diseases to improve their condition and prolong their lives. To compare neuroscience to digital applications to divine customer intent or to find 'hidden gems' in "Big Data" ignores the massively complicated neural pathways in the brain.

For example, a major advance in neuroscience was the discovery of the antipsychotic receptor, now known as the dopamine D2 receptor, the target for all antipsychotic medications. This receptor is critical to normal thinking and cognition, because its over-activity leads to psychotic thinking and deranged behavior.

The commercial promise for business leaders of what is called "neuroscience" in all things digital needs to be tempered with caution.

On April 8, Harvard Business Review published a blog by Dr. Srini Pillay called "Which Messages Go Viral and Which Ones Don't". "Going viral" is the Holy Grail of millions of companies wishing to sell more products online.

A recent study demonstrated that we can successfully predict which messages will go viral and which will not. This study showed that the ideas that are destined to spread have a characteristic signature at their origin -- that is, quite literally, within the brain of the sender. These messages specifically activate key regions in two circuits in the sender's brain: the "reward" circuit, which registers the value of the message to the sender, and the "mentalizing" circuit, which activates when we see things from the point of view of the person who receives the message.

Dr. Pillay is CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and an award-winning author of many excellent books, including Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, as well as Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. He is also Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches at Harvard Business School. So when Dr. Pillay writes in that neuroscience can help messages "go viral," business leaders will pay attention.

Because the article itself created buzz by an influencer of Dr. Pillay's repute, it's worth considering the study to which Dr. Pillay is referring: "Creating buzz: the neural correlates of effective message propagation". The HBR article was published on April 8th. The next day, it was re-published on Bloomberg, and promoted on Harvard University's main website. It was re-published on great neuro-tech blogs, such as The Daily Neuron, with a cool visual on connectivity that asked: "How do ideas spread? What messages will go viral on social media, and can this be predicted?" On my browser there were over 10,000 Google impressions to the HBR article within 24 hours.

But what did the referenced study by lead author Emily Falk and colleagues actually say? The question in the study seems clear enough: What distinguishes ideas or messages that appeal to others from ideas that do not appeal to the masses? The study attempts to examine whether there is some sort of brain-region basis underlying this question of "message communication," using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or fMRI).

The study has nothing to do with the Internet or online behavior.

Instead, the study procedure involved message communicators (who pretended to be "interns" at a television studio) who viewed ideas for television pilots during an fMRI scanning session. The subjects considered whether they would pass the ideas on to message recipients ("producers") for further consideration.

The limitations of this study

First, the "buzz" rating by the producers was correlated to six brain regions, raising a question of whether one can seriously correlate any of the single regions with a "buzz" rating. In fact, the highest correlation of the "buzz" effect was with the striatum, a well-known center of the reward system with the highest concentration of brain dopamine. The striatum, moreover, has multiple roles of cognition, sensation, motor pathways, and thought association, including a central role in normal and psychotic thinking.

Second, the "intention" effect was correlated with activity in four brain regions, but here, too, localization in a specific brain region was not convincing. This is not surprising, considering that the prefrontal cortex is involved in a variety of human brain functions, including executive function, socialization, memory, and interaction with others.

The focus on television shows further questions the general relevance this study may have for "getting the message out" online or offline.

Buyer, Beware

There is nothing in this study to demonstrate the power of "neuroscience" in online applications of any sort, and, yet, "going viral" -- the vernacular of the Harvard Business Review title - is Internet nomenclature, not neuroscience vernacular.

There are no guilty parties here. Harvard Business Review used an odd title for its blog, to be sure. The journal article was a study that found what it did. And Dr. Pillay accurately described the study's limited findings.

Here's the problem: Business leaders so desperately want to understand how the brain works in order to improve their bottom line such that they will invest oodles of cash in the offerings of digital companies that claim to have neuroscientific validity. And an article about "going viral" in Harvard Business Review by a best-selling author and esteemed academic from Harvard will, by definition, go viral. The very fact that you are reading this article in Huffington Post, a hugely influential global media outlet, will help the message of the study spread. That is because of how search engine rankings and algorithms work, not because of dopamine response. Caveat emptor.


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