Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study, which may answer questions about how an idea spreads and whether that spread can be predicted, could lead to more effective public health campaigns, more persuasive advertisements and better ways for teachers to communicate with students.
"Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they're seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves but to other people," psychology Professor Matthew Lieberman said.
"We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that."
Brain scans of study participants exposed to ideas they would later recommend should be shared or passed on showed significantly more activation in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ.
"We wanted to explore what differentiates ideas that bomb from ideas that go viral," researcher Emily Falk said. "We found that increased activity in the TPJ was associated with an increased ability to convince others to get on board with their favorite ideas."
The TPJ, located on the outer surface of the brain, is part of what is known as the brain's "mentalizing network," which is involved in thinking about what other people think and feel, the researchers said.
"Good ideas turn on the mentalizing system," Lieberman said. "They make us want to tell other people."