June 14, 2011

Teen Brain Activity Can Predict Pop Song Success

Data collected from teen brain activity recorded while listening to certain pop songs may help predict whether the song will be a megahit or not, according to an Emory University study.

By using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) to study the gray matter of teen brains, researchers are able to find that the activity in the ventral striatum region was linked to the popularity of the music.

"We have scientifically demonstrated that you can, to some extent, use neuroimaging in a group of people to predict cultural popularity," says Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist and director of Emory's Center for Neuropolicy.

In 2006, a small study at the Emory University in Georgia looked at twenty seven participants ranging in age from 12 to 17. They were asked to listen to songs that were unknown while researchers used fMRI to scan their neural reactions. In addition, they were also asked to rate the song on a scale of one to five.

The study was originally conducted to find out how peer pressure affected teenagers' opinion.

However, three years later, while lead researcher Berns was watching an episode of "American Idol," when he recognized one of the songs from his study, "Apologize" by One Republic that was performed by Kris Allen.

Berns recalls saying, "Hey, we used that song in our study."

"It occurred to me that we had this unique data set of the brain responses of kids who listened to songs before they got popular," he says.

He started to wonder if his results could have predicted the song's success, and so he revisited his 2006 research to compare it to the songs that had become a hit in terms of sales from 2007 to 2010.

"It's not quite a hit predictor," Berns admits, "but we did find a significant correlation between the brain responses in this group of adolescents and the number of songs that were ultimately sold."

Although the study only included 27 participants that were all teenagers - which only make up about 20% of music buyers - the results suggest that it may be possible to use brain responses from a group of people to predict cultural phenomenon across a population "“ even in people who are not scanned.

According to the study, the brain responses predicted about one-third of the songs that would eventually become popular with sales of more than 20,000 units.

Interesting enough, the participants rating of the songs on a scale of one to five did not correlate with future sales of the songs.

Berns believes that the results from rating the songs could be due to the complicated cognitive nature involved in rating something.

"You have to stop and think, and your thoughts may be colored by whatever biases you have, and how you feel about revealing your preferences to a researcher," Berns theorizes.

But "you really can't fake the brain responses while you're listening to the song. That taps into a raw reaction," says Berns.

Berns is a leader in nascent field of neuroeconomics, and believes that the results of the study are a small step to gaining a better understanding of how the brain can explain human decision-making.

"My long-term goal is to understand cultural phenomena and trends," Berns says.

"I want to know where ideas come from, and why some of them become popular and others don't. It's the ideas and the way that we think that determines the course of human history.

Ultimately, I'm trying to predict history."

The results of the study are published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.


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