[Science Solitaire] Your other-minded brain

Maria Isabel Garcia
Brain studies could help psychologists contribute to campaigns on public health and safety

We consider it a courageous or at least quite bold, to assert that we do not care about what other people think. While we may not always care, we do think about what others think or feel. In fact, we do not even have to passionately try to wonder and predict what other people may think about what we say or do. We just do. We naturally do. This ability helps us navigate and survive our complicated lives.

Our brains are innately social. We have brains that are naturally wired to try to know other minds and what they are up to, especially in relation to what we are thinking. Now, how we choose to react to what we think people feel or think, that is another story, another brain network.

Neuroscientists have, in previous studies, pretty much identified a region in the brain called the tempo-parietal junction or TPJ as the one that is mainly activated when we “mentalize” or imagine other people’s thoughts and feelings. If you want to place your hand where the TPJs can be approximately found on your left and right side, they are behind your ears. 

If you do this, hold it for a few seconds. Imagine, for most of the history of mankind, we took this for granted that we simply and naturally think of other people’s thoughts and feelings. Now, we have even identified the brain region that is active when we do that. And most recently, scientists have found that this region is particularly active when we latch on to an idea that could create a “buzz’ that spreads and influences others’ minds.

This is what they found out in a  recent study entitled, “Creating Buzz The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation” by Emily B. Falk, Sylvia A. Morelli,  B. Locke Welborn, Karl Dambacher and Matthew D. Lieberman, published in the online edition of Psychological Science last May 30, 2013.


The scientists tested participants (who were told to imagine themselves as studio interns) to pitch a given set of fictitious plots to “producers” who, in turn, assessed and rated the pitch. While the participants were hearing about the plots, they were hooked on to fMRI machines which took pictures of their brains “in motion,” i.e., as they think about the plots.

The big revelation was the ones who picked plots that corresponded to an activated TPJ were the ones who were “especially” convincing of the plots they favored to the “producers.” Matthew Lieberman, one of the authors of the study, was quoted in their press releases to have said that “it was the only region in the brain that showed this effect.” 

If more studies bear this out, many people in the advertising business and every other human enterprise that rests on the convincing power of an idea should probably pay attention. This means that your brain arrives at its own convincing powers, based on its “other-mindedness” and not simply on your own hard-nosed belief in the singular greatness of your idea or product.  

The scientists think that their study is a good peek at what happens in the brain as it conjures an idea that goes viral. They have expressed high hopes that with further studies, it could help psychologists contribute toward more impactful campaigns on public health and safety issues. 

After I read that study, for a good while, I started to speculate for my own entertainment during morning traffic how dull the TPJs must be of those who do or post the most self-absorbed poses or projects. First in my list are the photos of politicians on any public project. Then maybe next would be those who take multiple pictures of themselves throughout the entire day to post for everyone to see. But more importantly, I particularly took interest as a science writer because I always have to contend with my own fascination with a scientific concept that I forget to consider where most come from their own journey to understand science concepts. This study made me more conscious about the process by which I explore a scientific idea for the general public.

But as it turns out TPJs, particularly the right TPJ (rTPJ) is a supremely more interesting brain region. Its story goes beyond its “buzzing” power. Experiments have shown that if you excite it with electricity (transcranial direct current simulation), one becomes more social. Disrupt it with magnets (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and you become more morally permissible.  

But let us reserve that story for another column. For now, when you want to create a “buzz,” be conscious of what and how other people will think and connect with your idea and most likely, you will witness your “other-minded” brain region unleash its convincing prowess. – Rappler.com


Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.


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