Scanning the brains of a few people while they are being entertained gives scientists enough information to predict which TV or movie will be popular with the general public.
The study in the journal Nature Communications demonstrates novel methods for predicting behaviour in large populations.
The applications are enticing: forecasting election results, anticipating the reception of upcoming films and foreseeing the effects of changes to laws and policies.
Although previous brain imaging studies have shown that it is possible to predict the future behaviour of an individual, it was not possible to extrapolate the results to predict the how large groups will react.
However, Jacek Dmochowski of Stanford University and colleagues use electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor and image the brain activity of up to 16 people while viewing popular, previously-broadcast television content.
The neuroscientists used The Walking Dead, a popular tv series about a zombie apocalypse, as a test programs. As a balance they also showed an advertisement from the Super Bowl which was universally disliked, and the Super Bowl itself.
They found that the information from the scans allowed them to accurately predict behavioural expressions of interest and preference among thousands of individuals, whose responses are characterised by social media activity and audience ratings.
Researchers expect these findings to have important implications for ways in which education, marketing and media are targeted towards specific audiences.
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