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The neuroscience of Lady Gaga

June 28, 2010

“I was always not a cool kid, and then I suddenly feel like the cool kid,” she tells her screaming fans, all of whom are making monster claws into the air. “Tonight, you’re a cool kid,” she concludes with a giggle, blessing her thousands of adorers with approval that can only come from the Ga.

It’s becoming a point of conversation and agreement across the country: Lady Gaga is not just a pop-star–she is a pop phenomenon. She’s soared past the likes of Katy Perry. She’s bigger than Britney. And many say she’s passing up Madonna’s longstanding reputation as the supreme mover and shaker of female pop. So what is it that makes Gaga so potent? And will she continue to accelerate into outer space?

Lady Gaga is a case study in the power of the popular. In delicious recursion, her thematic fascination with fame has launched her to fame. Dating back to her songwriting days as a student at NYU, Lady Gaga’s lyrics have consistently pondered on the essence of popularity: “Fame is our felony, we’re so in love with it; the superstars and masochists who don’t know where to go” (Electric Kiss). Indeed, the very title of her runaway pop album, The Fame Monster, wreaks of her shameless, full-throttle preoccupation with the popular.

What is it in our human hard wiring that make us so fascinated with popularity? Several neuroscience studies have shed light onto this topic. As it turns out, social exclusion–the quintessential opposite of popularity–is painful to us. Like…literally painful. Numerous fMRI studies, including a landmark 2003 study published in the prestigious journal Science, have demonstrated that when we are socially excluded, it activates the same region in our brain (the anterior cingulate cortex) that is activated when we experience physical pain. In other words, whether you are experiencing rejection by your peers, or whether you are having physical pain inflicted on you–your brain writhes in agony the same way. It makes sense, then, why people who were rejected during adolescence during those awkward years of high school and junior high (and at some point, weren’t we all rejected by someone somewhere?) might be affected by the memory of that social exclusion even years later.

And yet the irony is that in spite of the engrossment in the popular, Gaga self-identifies as a freak. Here’s where we get to the twist in the storyline: Gaga the freak, the reject, creates a wide circumference of weirdness, and all of us find ourselves within the perimeters. And yet if even the outer boundary of her freakdom is still within the land of cool, then certainly we who are residents of the land circumscribed by such freakishness must also be citizens of the province of hip. Why do we like this? As it turns out, just as the experience of social exclusion is as real as physical pain to our brain, similarly the experience of social support takes away social pain from our brains just like an analgesic would take away physical pain from our bodies. In other words, with her affirming messages–both explicit and implicit–that her fans are the cool kids, Gaga provides social support that literally reduces pain in the fans who connect with her.

In the best sense, Lady Gaga is like a drug. In essence, Gaga has skilfully positioned herself in the station of popular adoration not by convincing us that she is something that we can never become and preying upon our insecurities like so many other popular figures do, but instead by showing us that coolness is for the taking, even for the biggest freaks. Indeed, Lady Gaga is more than good beats and catchy hooks–she is a Messiah figure to deliver everyone from the bondage of not being cool enough. She has essentially created a radicalized ingroup dynamic, which creates powerful psychological and neural rewards.

Couple the feel-good neurotransmitters released from social empowerment and ingroup inclusiveness with hyper-driven medial prefrontal cortical activity that results from interesting or complex themes (do you know what ‘Poker Face’ is actually about? to say nothing of the recent ‘Alejandro’ video release), and you have yourself a multi-layered experience: someone who is not just pretty to look at or fun to listen to, but generates abundant fodder for abstract processing, and who delivers a potent social-reward of ironic inclusiveness and support. Like I said, Lady Gaga isn’t just a star–she is a phenomenon. It might be the beautiful body or the funky clothing or the catchy writing that makes people listen; but it is the Gaga experience that makes them follow.

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2 Comments
  1. juli permalink

    Never having been cool in any way, I am obviously going to have to start listening to Lady Gaga!

  2. Carl Youngblood permalink

    I struggle to keep up with stuff like this, since I have so many other things vying for my attention, but that doesn’t stop me from standing back and watching with awe as you masterfully dissect a cultural icon. You have such an interesting combination of analytical genius and fan-boy admiration. It’s clear that you are way too cool for me!

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