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Zombies, Twitter, And Braaiiins!: The Neuroscience of The Walking Dead

A study of "Walking Dead" viewers looks at what happens to the mind while watching a zombie apocalypse… and what happens when viewers don’t share emotionally wrenching scenes on social media.

In a test room located at New York’s City College, researchers strapped special EEG readers to the heads of volunteers while they watched AMC’s television show The Walking Dead. One of cable television’s most popular programs, The Walking Dead is filled with flesh-eating zombies, extreme violence, and bloody deaths. Scientists from the Harmony Institute, an organization with ties to the entertainment industry, were trying to see what goes through viewer’s brains when they watch a television show, and to compare the results to what’s discussed on social media sites.

As it turns out, viewers don’t always tweet—or discuss with focus groups—everything they watch on television. Left unmentioned are a huge reservoir of emotionally impacting scenes which marketers would very much like to know about.

The project, which was not funded by AMC, was based around a large chunk of data—the more than 19,000 tweets written in 2010 about The Walking Dead's premiere episode. Working with Twitter and analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, the Walking Dead tweets were hand-coded into a customized scheme that measured mood, interest, and engagement with the program. Once the time-consuming process was complete, the Harmony Institute team had a decent statistical analysis of what viewers said on Twitter about the show.

Once a statistical analysis was performed on the Twitter discussion of The Walking Dead, researchers from City College and Columbia University recruited 20 volunteers selected to match the show’s social media demographics. Volunteers were then hooked up to sensitive electroencephalogram (EEG) readers that measured their brain activity while watching the pilot episode. While the use of EEG readers for focus group and entertainment research is in its infancy, the readers are just sophisticated enough to tell which scenes on the program generated the most neural activity.

Although the Harmony Institute has still not published their findings from its project, it has issued a preliminary report. For the most part, the report found, scenes that were heavily tweeted were also accompanied by heavy neural responses. The converse, however, is not true. Many segments in the show that sent neurons firing barely registered on Twitter. One emotionally resonant scene, when the show’s protagonist Rick woke up from a coma to find out his family has disappeared, was the subject of sparse Twitter comments but caused intense brain activity.

In a recent presentation to entertainment industry figures, the Harmony Institute’s team called the missing-from-Twitter segments of impactful television watching “ghost engagement”—in short, scenes that affect the viewer but aren’t mentioned in social media or in focus groups. This information about when viewers are paying attention, which they usually keep to themselves, can be very useful to film studios, television networks, and marketers looking to maximize box office receipts or sell advertising.

John S. Johnson

The Harmony Institute’s executive director, John S. Johnson, is best known for founding BuzzFeed with Jonah Peretti. The popular entertainment and news site is similarly metrics- and engagement-obsessed; at both BuzzFeed and Harmony the general consensus is that hard, analytical data processing can drive content. For both organizations, this idea holds true whether deciding which funny slide shows to post or which scenes a client should put in their movie trailer. And for, you know, parsing scenes of maximum zombie destruction.

While The Walking Dead was used for a successful pilot study of neurological engagement during a television program, don’t expect the technology to become commonplace at marketing firms and consultancies anytime soon. Researchers had to struggle with fickle EEG readers that were distracted by too much eye movement, and coding the thousands of tweets about the television show took more than 160 hours. Most importantly, EEG reading for marketing purposes is in its infancy—it’s still not known whether similar studies can be conducted on a mass scale with usable results. However, in the meantime, we do know one thing: Mindless zombies do, in fact, register in brain waves.

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4 Comments

  • Barry Quinn

    I love the idea of "Ghost Engagement". All creative people know it occurs, the stuff people talk about in research groups etc is only the things that they know how to talk to, or want to talk to. Many of the other levels of engagement are less shareable, but no less important.

    My guess is brands are the same. The stuff people post and talk about may not be anywhere near the whole picture, and pretending they are is folly.

  • Chris Drew

    TWD really does incorporate Twitter into the show and encourages Tweeting for interaction on The Talking Dead follow up program. Thank you for sharing this!