Opinions on wearing Masks and maintaining social distance are strongly separated, mainly along the red and blue lines. Conservative Republicans are the least likely to wear a mask, according to Pew Research data. Some neuroscientists believe that lessons learned from their field, if used properly, can help overcome the impasse and convince more people to follow the scientists’ recommendations.
“Many of these attitudes are really about your group identity,” says Elliot Berkman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, who studies neurological responses to public health news. “Face masks are political, but it̵
Berkman examines whether brain patterns can reliably predict a change in a person’s behavior. Studies in this area of neuroscience include whether brain activity when viewing anti-smoking PSAs can explain, for example, who will quit smoking later. In another study, the researchers looked at whether the neuronal activity during motivational therapy to promote exercise predicts who will be more active based on Fitbit data.
Berkman argues that when people reject public health messages, neurological patterns can help uncover hidden prejudices or ambivalences. “Where neuroimaging can really be useful are cases where people are unwilling or unable to tell you what they really think,” he says.
But here’s the problem: Most neuroimaging laboratories are closed due to the pandemic. Typical tests consist of taking people to laboratories where they are equipped with brain scanning and eye tracking devices, and meeting with a team of scientists. Shelter-in-place restrictions have made this impossible in many places.
However, a marketing consultancy in Texas was able to conduct a neuroimaging study to analyze how people respond to news about Covid-19. In March and early April, 24 people put on EEG caps that map electrical activity in the brain and received a number of news, PSAs, celebrities, and commercials about Covid-19 from Marketing Brainology. As they watched, eye tracking tools measured their eye movements and noted exactly what each respondent focused on and for how long.
“We’re looking to see if a respondent’s brain is essentially waking up,” said Michelle Adams, founder of Marketing Brainology. The researchers tracked which parts of which videos attracted people’s attention. The study did not track future changes in opinion or behavior, but does provide insight into how people responded to information about Covid-19.
The results could help shape responses to future pandemics, says Emily Falk, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies neuronal responses to public health and marketing messages. “Then we would have a better foundation to be confident that a pattern of brain responses would really tell us about the effectiveness of Covid messaging versus other types of messaging.”
People are more concerned with content that is relevant to them in a form they are used to, said Adams. Texas respondents paid the most consistent attention to the ads, either with a more hopeful tone or with information they thought was directly relevant. A CDC video described how Covid is more dangerous for people with other health problems like asthma or diabetes. This video attracted constant attention. “When they went through chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes, the respondents said,” I know someone with asthma or someone with this heart condition or diabetes, “she said.
An NBC montage highlighting people at the forefront kept people busy and presented some of the study’s most consistent attentions. Since then, Adams has noticed that many videos have highlighted people at the forefront. Given this deluge, similar messages are less likely to draw people’s attention. In the Texas study, participants initially looked at particularly bad news such as the crisis in Italy and crowded morgues, but quickly turned it off when they found it overwhelming.
As Adams explains, when respondents arrive in the laboratory, the EEG records their basic brain activity. When people are busy with material, there are noticeable peaks in attention. However, according to Adams, many respondents have loud baseline values, which means they come to the lab with more stress. This could cause them to turn off important information because they feel overwhelmed.