A home video of two brothers sitting on a couch as one brother bites the finger of the other brother has been watched on YouTube nearly 1 billion times.  The “Charlie Bit My Finger” video gained popularity in 2007 and has since reached pop culture notoriety that, quite honestly, has an arbitrary virality. There are millions of home videos that star equally cute kids having candid moments on film. What makes this one so different? This seems to be the nature of viral videos, no rhyme or reason to what might strike a chord. However, science is saying differently.  A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania says that our brain activity holds the key to understanding what we share.

Brain Activity Relational to Sharing

Essentially, the study indicated that certain regions of the brain are heavily activated when we see a piece of content worth sharing. Researchers used techniques, namely heat mapping and neuroimaging, to observe brain activity that corresponds with the self and cognition.  The study showed that the parts of the brain associated with value systems lights up whenever we find a piece of content worth sharing. The motivation is driven by the potential “for self-enhancement or social approval,” which is the determining factor for whether or not a post will be shared.


Photo Via: PNAS


Humans are social creatures. Our survival instincts thrive on knowledge sharing. But how does this correlate to me reposting a funny video of a monkey pushing one of his siblings into a pond on Facebook? Basic psychology says, we share to have visibility and gain positive interaction. Neurologically the term “mentalizing” has been coined to forecast the mental state of others (what they are likely to think and feel about shared information) when we provide a piece of information on social channels. Without visibility, the point of sharing in the first place would be moot.

Value Based Sharing

In the journal, A Neural Model of Valuation and Information Virality they extrapolated that “Neurally, activity in the mentalizing system has been linked to sharing decisions in individuals, and successful persuaders engage brain regions strongly associated with mentalizing more than unsuccessful persuaders within two-person propagation chains.” Bottom line, we are engaging with the part of the brain that is specifically looking to generate impact when we proliferate and share viral content. The common denominator in every instance of virality is a value based decision.

Value based sharing has a relational effect on the brain. We are motivated to share when our brain’s valuation system encodes and prices the value of sharing content, which happens at an unconscious level. But to think our brain has a built-in internal meter on what is valuable is fascinating to know.  Humans operationally function under a framework of visibility and our neural activity is a good predictor of what and how often we share. So, the next time you create social content, keep in mind the question of: How much visibility potential does this content have? You might find your next post going viral.