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Measuring a billion data points to find out the effect of Tweets

By @gordonmacmillan
Friday, 14 November 2014

We know people use Twitter to discover and connect with great content, we wanted to find out if these activities have an effect on long-term memory. To do this Twitter commissioned research that measured electrical impulses in the brain. The data revealed that Twitter creates a more memorable impact when compared to other digital channels.

The research, conducted by market research firm Neuro-Insight (@neuro_insight), found that not only is content more memorable on Twitter in comparison to general online activity, but it also drives a stronger emotional response. The study discovered that Twitter provides a better “environment for accessing information that relates directly to users.”

To derive these findings, @neuro_insight outfitted users with specially designed visors and headsets complete with sensors. This state-of-the-art kit then measured the tiny electrical pulses in the brain as people used Twitter.

It is these pulses that produced the study’s 1.4 billion data points mentioned above. To arrive at this figure the researchers combined the 400 neuro readings taken per second and multiplied it by the 20 sensors used, the 114 users in the study, and its 25 minute duration. This body of data allowed them to record the strength and the location of the electrical activity and to understand the activities and the messages that were registering in different parts of the brain.

How active usage drives personal relevance

The first area of the brain that the study looked at was the Brodmann area that is responsible for personal relevance. This deals with things in life that we relate strongly to, such as news events, favourite celebrities, brands and sports.

The research found that when UK users were actively using Twitter, i.e., Tweeting, searching or replying, the strength of brain activity was 51% above the online norm. Even when passively using the platform (scrolling, browsing and looking) Twitter was still 27% above the online norm reflecting the immersive and engaging nature of the whole Twitter experience.

Heather Andrew, CEO of @neuro_insight, says one of the reasons the results are so strong when it comes to Twitter is because it is information we have a personal interest in.

“Anything where there is relevant context, or people are personally engaged, and there’s some sort of interaction drives much better brain responses than something that is more passive. Twitter is a great example of this, as it’s a really good environment for accessing information that relates directly to you,”

Interesting to note, aside from this Twitter study, @neuro_insight has only observed greater effectiveness in measures of personal relevance to one other medium: our brains’ response to receiving and opening personal mail.

Emotional intensity

The second area of the brain that the study looked at was the posterior right hemisphere, a region where brain activity indicates the level of emotional intensity. Here the results for Twitter were even higher. For people actively using the platform the study found that Twitter scored 75% above the norm for emotional intensity. Passive use of Twitter also scored very highly, coming in at 64% above the online norm.

According to Andrew, the high levels of emotional intensity that people experience on Twitter highlights the similarities that an online experience has with the physical world.

“The interactivity that’s involved in using Twitter, the immediacy of messages and the short, condensed way of expressing them all drives a strong emotional response.”

Previous work done by @neuro_insight has shown that activities that are tactile in the real world, involving touch, feel and interactivity, elicit strong responses – and now with this study we can see that something similar can happen on an online platform too.

That’s important, says Andrew as “emotion drives memory encoding and memory encoding correlates with decision-making and purchase behaviour”.

Memory

The final area that the research looked at was associated with long-term memory storage, or the lateral pre-frontal cortex of the brain. In particular, how well new information is encoded and stored in the brain. The study found that content delivered on Twitter is 34% more effective at driving memory encoding versus on an average website. Furthermore, active Twitter use drives 56% greater memory encoding than the average website.

Andrew says the measure of what is being stored is a highly relevant one as there is a strong relationship between memory encoding and subsequent behaviour.

“There is a very strong correlation between memory encoding, what is stored, and our subsequent actions including purchase behaviour. The reason for that is that stuff can go into our heads and we might not be consciously aware of it, but it is there and can drive our future actions. We’re not always consciously aware of what’s behind our behaviour, but what’s been encoded into memory, even unconsciously, is a key driver.”

Overall, the study confirms how engaged many users are in the content they see on Twitter. It underscores how good content on Twitter can really hold peoples’ attention. And it tells us why that’s so by highlighting the importance of a sense of personal relevance, and the power of content that touches users emotionally.

*Methodology

The opt-in study, carried out in July 2014, included 114 participants aged 18-65, with an even split of men and women. Participants wore a visor with lights and a headset with sensors that measured the tiny electrical pulses in the brain while using browsing the web and using Twitter during a 25 minute session. By recording the neural processing speed and the location of electrical activity in the brain, researchers were able to understand which activities and which messages were registering in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional intensity, sense of personal relevance and long-term memory encoding.