Fan Theory

Inside The
Brain of a Fan

Decoding the Neurological Effects of Fandom

How do fans’ brains react to seeing a story they love?

Watching your favorite show is anything but a passive experience. Great stories have the power to make you laugh, cry, scream and hang on every word—leaving you craving more.

Some stories are so powerful that they become a part of who you are. And this fandom can take form in many ways. But for all the ways we can express our fandom on the outside, we know little about how it comes to be or takes shape internally.

To take a closer look at the internal effects of fandom, we partnered with neuroscientists to use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) neuroimaging technology to study the brain activity of hardcore fans and non-fans of Comedy Central’s South Park and decode what really happens in our brains when we watch something we love.

What’s behind this experiment?

For our experiment, we placed participants inside an fMRI machine and had them watch a 30-minute episode of South Park. As they watched the show, the fMRI machine monitored the blood flow throughout the brain. Significant increases or decreases in blood flow signal more or less activity in the corresponding region of the brain.

What we found showed some illuminating differences between the ways hardcore fans and non-fans experience South Park that help to paint a picture of how the stories we love impact us the very moment we consume them.

South Park Moments of Interest

Title Sequence

High deactivation

High activation

What we showed them Title sequences have undergone a resurgence in recent years. Shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones have turned the historically short, unmemorable introductions into their own art form worthy of in-depth exploration. Today, title sequences in their own respect have become part of the cultural zeitgeist and serve as an important source of identity for a show, capable of drawing in or deterring viewers.

South Park’s iconic title sequence, like the show, has been going strong for 20 years, helping to introduce fans to the town of South Park, while providing a memorable musical cue. Through our experiment, we wanted to explore the impact of the sequence on the show’s fans.

What we found When our participants watched the title sequence of South Park, we found that fans of the show experienced a significant increase in activation in a region of the brain that’s related to reward processing.

This same part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, also plays an active role in addiction and drug reinforcement. Seeing it activated during a title sequence suggests that fans have a learned response to associate the intro with reward.

What we showed them Even a show as offensive as South Park has the ability to move you at times. For instance this sentimental moment where Kenny gifts his sister with a doll. Moments of empathy can provide a window into the role content plays on individuals’ identity. And while empathic moments certainly aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of South Park, there are plenty of characters, moments, and social issues fans can empathize with or relate to.

What we found When we looked at the brain during these empathic moments, we saw an increase in activation situated at the front of areas that are related to “Theory of mind” (ToM) and empathic response.

This suggests that fans have a unique kind of resonance with certain moments during South Park where they are able to internalize and identify with them to a greater extent than non-fans.

What we showed them For South Park, offensiveness is the calling card of the show. Whether it’s killing Kenny 100+ times or Kanye’s love for fishsticks, there are no boundaries to what or who the show might take on and this edginess is often what fans associate most with the show. We wanted to explore how fans and non-fans react neurologically to these types of moments.

What we found Contrary to our initial beliefs, there is actually little significant difference between a hardcore fan and a non-fan during offensive moments. There is a fair amount of brain activity occurring across multiple brain regions likely due to premotor and motor activity — or in other words the initiation of laughter — but viewers are generally experiencing these moments in the same way.

What’s interesting about this is that it suggests that fans’ connection to the show may transcend its edginess and offensiveness. Instead of finding resonance simply in the humor, fans are connecting with the show on a deeper level because they understand that there are added layers of satire and social commentary.

What we showed them As an animated series, South Park’s visual style and aesthetic, inspired by cut-out animation, is unlike anything else on television. The unique visual aspects of the show inspired us to take a general look at how participants process the show overall to see if fans take in information in unique ways.

What we found Fans actually experienced deactivation in the parts of the brain related to visual processing, which is surprising given South Park’s unique visual style. But since fans have spent so much time with the show and are so familiar with the aesthetic, they actually rely less on their visual processing and are able to place more emphasis on encoding other types of sensory information, like auditory stimuli. The takeaway here is that fans are actually processing the show in different ways, which suggests a fan’s experience of the show is distinct from that of a non-fan.

What We Learned

So, does fandom affect our neurological patterns when seeing stories we love? In short, yes. The brain activity of South Park fans reveal they are processing the show in different ways and exhibit significant patterns of activation during key moments.

We’ve just started to scratch the surface of what can be learned about audiences using fMRI technology. Now that we’ve begun to decode what happens in the brain of South Park fans and why, we can use this as framework for a deeper understanding of fandom, and in turn, fans themselves.

For now, we can rest on the fact that South Park fandom isn’t just an external expression of a passion—that passion is also biological, and we have the brain data to back it up.

For further analysis and to learn more about Fan Theory, go to V by Viacom.

Fan Theory

Fan Theory is a series of thought-provoking experiments from Viacom, designed to explore the relationship between fans and the stories they love.

Leveraging the power of our best-in-class research and data capabilities, Fan Theory looks at fans and audiences through a cultural, psychographic, and neurological lens. As a global entertainment company, we’re committed to understanding audiences in new ways to build deeper connections with fans that have breadth and depth. Each experiment is in support of this, validating the hypotheses we have around the relationships and dynamics fans have with content.