Can Fake News Change Your Brain?

Digital Health Headlines

Cowritten with Dr. Daniel Amen

The ill effects of fake news on both our health and the health of our society has been on my mind. So, earlier this year, I called my colleague neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen with an unusual question. Could the human brain be hacked by fake news? I had just seen fMRI images in a Nature Scientific Reports article by Kaplan and colleagues from University of Southern California, which showed that politically challenging statements activated the parts of our brains associated with self-identity and emotion, like the amygdala.

This change is rooted in the deep reptilian recesses of our brain where our reactions are deeply instinctual. In other words, after digesting fake news, readers would have little control over their emotional response. Since the most impactful fake news appears to be based on conspiracy theories or health myths, this brain observation was doubly interesting for two doctors. So, we engaged in a highly charged conversation culminating in a first of its kind social experiment to identify the dangerous and disruptive effect of fake news on our brains. We had Jestin Coler, who was original tracked down by NPR Reporter Laura Sydell and cyber sleuth John Jansen and is a successful fake news creator, craft two fictional articles. The first, designed to prey on liberals, stated that a climate change scientist had been illegally jailed. The second, aimed to irritate conservatives, reported that tunnels under the border wall were allowing thousands of illegal Mexicans immigrants to enter the U.S. We chose images specifically designed to stimulate engagement by the selective targets.

Three female volunteers – Rachel, Allison and Sharon – read both articles at Amen Clinics in New York, as Dr. Amen and his team performed QEEGs (quantitative electroencephalograms).

QEEG is a noninvasive study that uses 19 scalp electrodes to measure electrical signals from the brain. These signals are fed into a computer program that compares them to an age and gender-matched healthy group. There are thousands of studies using QEEG for a wide variety of clinical indications, including memory problems, anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injury, and ADHD.

Each woman had 3 QEEGs:

1) at baseline with eyes closed;

2) immediately after they read the first fake news article, eyes closed thinking about it;

3) immediately after the read the second fake news article, eyes closed thinking about it.

There was a 15-minute wash out period between the reading of each article. Dr. Amen then interviewed each of the women about their emotional reactions to the articles. Then the QEEGs were analyzed by Dr. Amen comparing each woman’s fake news QEEG to her baseline one.

Results from the QEEGs from these three women reveals differences attributable to the impact of fake news on their baseline beliefs.

Here is what we found:

Rachel

Rachel described herself as a conservative. Her QEEG showed little change from baseline when she read and considered the article on immigration. She told Dr. Amen that she agreed with vetting and there was a need for the wall, although she was not a fan of the president. She did not report a significant emotional reaction to this article.

Yet, the article on climate change upset her, which surprised us. She cried when she talked about it, especially the part about people suppressing the truth. Her QEEG showed increased activation of the right front part of her brain, which tends to be associated with increased activity of the amygdala (fear), insular cortex (angst and disgust) and prefrontal cortex (anxiety and stress); and decreased left frontal activity, which is often associated with feelings of sadness. The QEEG was consistent with her emotional state.

 

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Rachel’s QEEG Difference Between Baseline and Fake Immigration Article:

 

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rachel brainscan2

 

Red equals increased activation; blue equals decrease activation. There is red in the back of the brain indicating she was thinking about the article, but without a significant emotional response.

 

Rachel’s QEEG Difference Between Baseline and Fake Climate Change Article:

 

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Right frontal activation (anxiety, fear), left frontal deactivation (sadness).

Allison

Allison also described herself as a conservative. Her QEEG showed increased right frontal activity (anxiety, fear, and angst) with the immigration article. She told Dr. Amen that she felt disgusted by the description of the tunnel system in the article and reacted negatively to the article, which was seen on her scan.

She showed little response on QEEG and reported she had no emotional response to the article on climate change. She said she thought it was a “jumbled mess of information,” and it didn’t make sense to her. She reacted to the article in a way that we suspected a conservative person would.

 

Allison’s QEEG Difference Between Baseline and Fake Immigration Article

 

 

allisonbrain

brainscan4

 

Red equals increased activation; blue equals decrease activation. There is red in the back of the brain indicating she was thinking about the article, but without a significant emotional response.

 

Allison’s QEEG Difference Between Baseline and Fake Climate Change Article

allisonbrain2

brainscan4

Right frontal activation (anxiety, fear), left frontal deactivation (sadness).

Sharon

Sharon describes herself as liberal. After reading the immigration article, compared to her baseline QEEG, there was less activity in her left frontal cortex, evidenced by the blue strip seen at 10 0’clock, a finding often consistent with sadness. Sharon appeared as a passionate woman, engaged in the task at hand and said that the article upset her and made her feel sad that people were manipulating the issue for monetary gain.

After reading the article on climate change, Sharon said it made her sad, angry, and irritated. Her QEEG showed marked right hemisphere activation, the most significant shift in brain activity obtained. Effectively, her results were the inverse of what was observed with Allison, who was bothered more by the immigration article.

Sharon’s QEEG Difference Between Baseline and Fake Immigration Article

 

sharonbrain

 

brainscan4

Red equals increased activation; blue equals decrease activation. Left frontal blue is often associated with lower activity and more feelings of sadness.

 

Sharon’s QEEG Difference Between Baseline and Fake Climate Change Article

sharonbrain2

 

 

 

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      Right hemisphere activation.

The women were brought into The Dr. Oz Show studio without knowledge that the articles were fake. When confronted with this reality, they responded on camera with surprise. Allison looked directly at Dr. Amen as if he had betrayed her. They then seemed awkward as they articulated reasons why the fake news did not adversely affect them. These bright women had not expected to fall prey to scammer Jestin Coler, in part because they did not realize how hard-wired our brains are to confirmation bias.

This natural human tendency was highlighted by one woman’s acceptance that the news might be fake, but it reinforced a truth that she felt about our country, so the lie was less dangerous. Numerous studies embrace the concept of confirmation bias and even reflect the power of this prejudice in linking communities. In one study, researchers looked at how misinformation is spread on Facebook. They found that conspiracy theories and fake scientific news can spread, because people tend to select and share stories based on a preconceived narrative and ignore the rest. People also tend to associate with like-minded individuals, which creates an echo chamber effect.

These communities are built around fear because our brains are hard-wired for negativity. Nastiness has more impact on our brains because of the brain’s negativity bias, which is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing.

The successful use of this approach is centuries old, as outlined in Jennifer Kealy’s thoughtful and well-referenced review. She writes, “The principle function of this essay is the examination of how news construction creates a social strength within a community. A fundamental characteristic of that control is the production of fear and dread.” … The production practices have produced an organizational media machine driven by selective news sources promoting terror (Altheide 2002:32). … How the news is sourced becomes inferior to getting the perfect story. (Frost 2000:3). … Yet, the construction of moral panics in a modern era is far from a new phenomenon. The mass media has shaped public anxieties for centuries (Jewkes 2004: 86) and will continue to do so in to the future. “

The scientific underpinnings of this strategy are only becoming evident now, and are accelerated by Kaplan’s provocative study using functional MRI scans. Resisting belief activated parts of the brain differently than accepting new information.

“Challenges to political beliefs produced increased activity in the default mode network—a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world…. These results highlight the role of emotion in belief-change resistance and offer insight into the neural systems involved in belief maintenance, motivated reasoning, and related phenomena.”

So when Jestin Coler challenged us in the TV interview that false news was the consumer’s problem, he was ignoring the reality that we are hard-wired to respond in the wrong way. Effectively, as communications psychologist Dannagal Young told PBS News Hour, “Blaming readers for spreading fake news from a cognitive perspective is somewhat equivalent to blaming a baby for soiling itself. They can’t help it.” Mr. Coler believes he is engaged in honorable satire, which requires audience participation to increase interest and retention. But with fake news, the joke is on the reader.