Researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication use brain science to increase healthy behaviors
Every year, millions die from diseases that behavior changes could prevent. Smoking is bad. Exercise is good. Yet swapping bad habits for good ones is far from easy. Improving people’s ability to make healthier decisions is the impetus behind Dr. Emily Falk’s research into the brain, and her results are moving people to action.
Annenberg’s academic centers improve communication around high-stakes issues like health, and supporting them is a top School priority. “If we can change behavior for the better, we can save lives,” says Falk, Associate Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab. “Public health campaigns are one important way to change behavior. We conduct surveys to point us to the most effective campaign images and messages, but people are often poor predictors of what information will motivate them. So we add the tools of neuroscience to figure out what actually works and why.”
This work is just the tip of the iceberg. Neuroscience can reveal much more about how to communicate effectively, and communication is a central force that allows people to bond with—and influence—one another.”Dr. Emily Falk
Falk and her team used functional MRI to scan the brains of 50 Michigan smokers while showing them anti- smoking images, looking at which images increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the area that integrates rational thoughts with emotions and decides the relative value of information. Partnering with the Michigan Center for Health Communications Research and the New York State Smokers’ Quitline, they sent an email blast to 800,000 smokers using the same images, along with a link to a quit-smoking clinic. The images that prompted the highest brain response in the sample study also led to the most email clicks, demonstrating the promise of neuroscience to improve public health campaigns.
As the team’s topics expand beyond health to areas such as civic engagement, philanthropic support is essential to supplement federal grant dollars. Falk is working with Annenberg Dean Michael X. Delli Carpini to explore how humor affects people’s ability to process and share political information. After hiring a comedy writer to enliven dry ballot propositions, brain imaging studies showed that adding humor reliably and robustly increases people’s ability to remember—and share—information. Since democracy depends on engaged citizens acting on what they know, such insights are a powerful tool.
“This work is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Falk. “Neuroscience can reveal much more about how to communicate effectively, and communication is a central force that allows people to bond with—and influence—one another.”