Your brain on LCD Soundsystem
To say that music evokes some of the most visceral emotions we have as humans would hardly be considered a controversial statement. And music fans are often highly opinionated when it comes to what they love or hate. That being the case, Brainsights recently set out on a mission to tackle a controversial question: “How can we determine a band's biggest fan?” Is it the fan who lines up the earliest to get front row seats for a concert?Is it the person who screams the loudest when a deejay spins a hit in the club? Is it the girl who owns the band’s entire discography on vinyl, listening only on high-end audio equipment so as to enjoy the music as ‘the band intended’?
These are the anecdotal indicators of super-fandom. But we're interested in something more statistically and scientifically robust. So, we looked to brain science for answers.
Here’s the idea:
Brainsights decided to test the idea on LCD Soundsystem. The multi-Grammy-nominated Brooklyn band is playing Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on December 3rd. In the weeks leading up, Brainsights invited hundreds of Torontonians to watch a host of LCD Soundsystem content (official music videos, live concert footage, special performances, etc.) while wearing EEG (electroencephalogram) readers, which took a measurement of their brain’s response to the content every 2 milliseconds. Using brain data to measure each audience member’s reaction, the “biggest fan” (as determined by their brain’s emotional response) would receive a pair of tickets to see the band live at the ACC.
How we approached the analysis:
We approached the task of isolating the biggest LCD Soundsystem fan in four distinct stages:
Before any brains were even scanned, would-be participants completed a registration survey, where they answered a series of questions about the band. They indicated their level of interest in the band’s music (self-reported fandom), told us about their favourite song (there were multiple choice options designed to throw off would-be pretenders), and told us if/when they’ve ever seen the band live.
We recruited groups of fans (and non-fans to serve as a control) to watch a collection of LCD Soundsystem content (music videos and concert clips) while they had their emotional and neurological responses recorded. (Brainsights assigns each participant a unique identification number to protect PII). Following that, we computed an average emotional response for each piece of LCD content screened.
Using a process called ‘neurosegmentation’, Brainsights then identified those respondents with the strongest brain activity - the greatest levels of attention, emotional connection and encoding to memory - in order to produce a top-20 list of fans for each LCD song. We then scoured those lists to determine which unique participant IDs showed up on the top-20 list for multiple songs. In other words, we wanted to know which respondents consistently showed strong brain activity across LCD Soundsystem music. Some participants made the top 20 for just one song. Others made it for two songs or three songs. This process allowed us to narrow our search to a list of 5 LCD Soundsystem super-fans.
4. Finally, we dove into the individual responses for each participant, looking at which moments drove the strongest emotional resonance for them. How many ‘magic moments’ (moments where emotional connection is more than 50% greater than average) did they experience watching the band and what was the strength of those experiences? The more moments and the greater the depth (wave amplitude) of those moments, the more the band resonates with the fan on an emotional level. The more the band resonates, the bigger the fan.
This final step was the key differentiator in determining the biggest fan, and the winner of our contest. While it may have been tempting to use the number of songs where overall engagement or emotional connection was above average, and/or the average neural activity levels for each song, moments matter. There’s a big difference between someone who “doesn’t dislike” a band and someone who engaged on a deeply emotional level with their music. Looking solely at average scores, it’s possible to select someone who is the former...exploring those magic moments ensures you get the latter.
What set the biggest fan apart from the rest:
Compared to the average viewer, participant 682_001 had more than 8 minutes worth of magic moments. 17% of the time this person spent enjoying LCD Soundsystem, they experienced connection levels more than double that of the average viewer, with peak connection levels reaching nearly 10x the average response. This means that even the most anthemic and enjoyable parts of an LCD song, moments that everyone loves, resonated as much as 10 times greater with this fan.
Consider the following hypothesis: If someone is going to enjoy watching a band play a live show, watching live concert footage should resonate with them (at least a little bit). Included in the LCD content reel was footage of Daft Punk Is Playing At My House live from Madison Square Gardens. The average viewer initially only dialed in for about 10 seconds, with engagement levels hovering around average until the final minute of the song where the band really gets going. But during the opening 80 seconds of the footage, where the band is taking stage and teasing the audiences with pieces of the main melody, participant 682_001’s emotional connection levels were nearly double that of the average viewer, with peak moments coming in at 270% greater.
The strongest moments for participant 682_001 came during All My Friends. Much like Daft Punk Is Playing At My House, the opener of this song was also a big one: average emotional connection levels were 300% greater than the average viewer when the first chorus begins (“That’s how it starts. We go back to your house.”) While this serves as yet another data point for how much this person digs LCD Soundsystem, the biggest moment for 682_001 came around 3:30 into the video, as James Murphy delivers the final anthemic verse under a waterfall: “Oh, if the trip and the plan come apart in your hand, You can turn it on yourself you ridiculous clown. You forgot what you meant when you read what you said, And you always knew you were tired, but then, Where are your friends tonight?”
Why this matters:
When someone says they are a 'fan' of something, what does that even mean? How would you even measure their 'fandom'? If you found yourself in a dispute with a coworker over who was the biggest fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, how would you decide a winner? Would it be whomever knows the most team stats? The one with the most signed memorabilia? How about who's been to the most games?
Settling it like this is subjective; these are anecdotal indicators of fandom. Self-identifying as a fan of something gives us no indication of the degree of that fandom. And intuitively, we know that some people just love things more than others. This love, affinity, attachment, or whatever you wish to call it is rooted in a deep emotional bond with the subject matter. Quantifying that emotional bond is what we set out to do in determining the biggest fan of LCD Soundsystem.
But we're not done there. Think you're the biggest fan of The Wire? How about Drake, or Manchester United or LeBron? Want a shot to prove it? Stay tuned....