New Book about Studying the Brain “on” Media!

By Paul Bolls on September 14, 2011 0 Comments Ideas Experiments Research

Hot off the press this week is a new book on using psychophysiological measures to study how the brain processes media content. I had the pleasure of co-authoring this book with a great friend and colleague, Robert Potter at Indiana University.  Professor Potter and I worked together as wide-eyed doctoral students conducting our science on media and the human brain in Professor Annie Lang’s lab at IU. Let me explain a little of the logic behind psychophysiology and then I’ll describe how it generates knowledge of how the brain processes media and ultimately, insight into the effective design and delivery of media content. 

Psychophysiological Measurement and Meaning
Front cover of new book

Psychophysiology is a cutting edge method for media research that uses physiological responses, like heart rate, to measure psychological processes, like paying attention. Psychophysiologists have done the dirty work that enables media researchers like myself to use validated physiological responses to measure for instance how much mental effort individuals invest in processing different kinds of media content. Thanks to the work of psychophysiologists I can conduct experiments in the PRIME LAB using measures like heart rate, skin conductance (how much your palm sweats) and facial EMG (measurement of facial muscles involved in expressing emotion) and draw conclusions about how specific features of media content (e.g. writing style of news stories, highly emotional video content, graphics, etc.) affect emotional responses, attention, and memory.

So, how does this play out in generating insight into effective media content? In a study presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in 2006, MU Journalism Alum Katie Roehrick and I used psychophysiology to index attention paid to televised political ads. The ads varied in production pacing (number of cuts and edits) and whether they were attack or non-attack ads. Contrary to our expectations we found that slow-paced, non-attack ads were most attention grabbing due to slower heart rate observed during exposure to those ads. This made us scratch our heads, wondering why, so we went back and looked at our slow-paced, non-attack ads. We noticed that most of them simply featured a candidate talking directly into the camera. Guess what, it turns out our brains are hard-wired to pay attention when it seems someone is talking directly to us even in the “media world.” In my opinion it would be nice if politicians would tune into this study because it suggests that an effective advertising strategy could be simply looking into the camera and telling your constituents your views and what you intend to do. Wouldn’t that be a nice change in our political dialogue for the upcoming election?...but I digress.

I’ve had an incredible adventure using psychophysiology for the past 17 years to study how the brain processes media. This knowledge is being put to the test in exciting ways during my Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellowship. I’m exploring how redesigning online news and advertising to better reflect how the brain is structured to process information can ultimately lead to journalism that does a better job of informing the public while also economically thriving. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I invite you to join in following this adventure. I welcome any contact you want to have with me through RJI. I will also be looking for news industry partners willing to experiment by redesigning aspects of their websites starting this January. The process of writing my book on psychophysiology sparked the ideas behind my fellowship. I hope you will join me in developing ideas that will hopefully help promote great journalism!

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