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Hit TV Show or Not? Brainwaves May Tell

FRIDAY, Aug. 1, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Here's news for TV programmers: Scanning viewers' brainwaves may help you spot a hit.

Tracking viewers' brain activity seems to predict the preferences of large TV audiences, according to a study based on viewers of broadcasts such as the drama series "The Walking Dead" and recent Super Bowl commercials.

The researchers compared brain activity of a few viewers to show-related Twitter traffic on the Internet. "When brainwaves were in agreement, the number of [supportive] tweets tended to increase," study senior author Lucas Parra, professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York, said in a college news release.

As Parra's team explained it, people's brains respond similarly to engaging programming. And by drawing viewers' attention, popular TV shows and commercials produce brainwaves that appear to be in sync between people, the researchers found.

In conducting the study, published this week in Nature Communications, the researchers asked 16 participants to watch scenes from "The Walking Dead." They also watched several commercials from the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowls. While they watched, their brain activity was analyzed.

According to study lead author Jacek Dmochowski, simply asking people about their reactions to TV shows "are fraught with problems as people conform their responses to their own values and expectations," he said. On the other hand, tracking viewers' actual brainwaves as they watch TV gets around this inherent bias, he said.

Using brain imaging technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that brainwaves for engaging TV ads could be driven by activity in parts of the brain tied to vision, hearing and attention.

But does this neurological activity mirror the likes and dislikes of the wider public? To find out, the brainwaves of the participants were compared to reactions of the general population recorded on social media (such as Twitter) and USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter.

The researchers were able to accurately predict the preferences of large TV audiences. For example, for "The Walking Dead," brain activity among the participants predicted 40 percent of related social media or Twitter traffic, the team said. The participants' brainwaves also predicted 60 percent of the Nielsen ratings, which are used to determine the size of a TV audience.

When it came to Super Bowl ads, the study was 90 percent accurate in predicting viewer preferences. There were very similar brainwaves among participants watching a 2012 Budweiser commercial, which featured a beer-fetching dog. This ad was voted the second favorite by the general public that year, the researchers noted.

Meanwhile, there was little similarity among the brain activity of the participants during a GoDaddy commercial, which was among the worst-rated ads of 2012.

"Our findings show that these immediate responses are in fact closely tied to the subsequent behavior of the general population," added Dmochowski, who was a postdoctoral fellow at the City College of New York when the study was conducted.

"Interesting ads may draw our attention and cause deeper sensory processing of the content," speculated researcher Matthew Bezdek from Georgia Tech in the news release.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides more information on the human brain and how it works.

SOURCE: Georgia Institute of Technology, news release, July 29, 2014