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Your Brain on Headlines

Updated: Apr 10

By Rhea Wessel

A well-crafted headline is not just an entry point to a story —it's a strategic tool in capturing and retaining attention.

But what makes a headline irresistible, and how does it trigger our curiosity? Let's dive into the psychology of headlines and their neurological impact.

The Magnetic Pull of Curiosity

At its core, a headline serves as a cognitive teaser, promising value and insight.

Headlines exploit the so-called curiosity gap—what we know versus what we want to know.

When written well, this gap incites a sense of anticipation and need for closure, compelling us to click, read, and engage.

The chemicals behind it

Neuroscientific research shows that when you encounter intriguing headlines, this triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and learning.

This chemical reaction not only heightens our curiosity but also motivates us to seek out the information, promising a reward for our cognitive investment.

Headlines should balance novelty with relevance

A headline that teases the brain's desire for new information, while signaling clear benefits, is exactly what the learning brain wants to feed it.

An example is the headlines used by The Economist for it's Valentine's Day issue

👇👇(see below).👇👇


"Between the spreadsheets" is a fun play on words and so on...

Headlines as enabling constraints When I teach writing to subject-matter experts, I like to stress that a headline is so much more than a headline. It's the framing of the story. And when the headline already appeals because you see the hint of a good idea, it's activating chemicals in your brain.

For emerging thought leaders vying for the attention of readers, headlines are your first, and sometimes only, chance to engage your audience. Look to strike a balance between curiosity and the value of the idea in your article. This will draw readers in and stimulate a neurological response that makes your article memorable.

My suggestion: Put in the thinking and work it takes to write strong headlines that speak to the pain points of your readers and hint at the solutions you provide. Remember, in the attention economy, a well-crafted headline may be one of your strongest currencies.

-Rhea Wessel is a writer and founder of The Institute for Thought Leadership. Her new book on using AI to boost your thought leadership is due out late 2024.

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