A new study by UK scientists reveals a correlation between the size of particular areas of the brain and the number of “Facebook friends” a person may possess.
Investigators say the research suggests an association or link, not a cause-effect relationship. In other words, the current data does not imply that having more Facebook friends makes the regions of the brain larger or whether some people are hard-wired to have more friends.
Currently, the social networking site is believed to have more than 800 million active users worldwide. According to researchers, nearly 30 million of these are believed to be in the UK.
As most have realized, the site allows people to keep in touch online with a network of friends. Among individuals, the size of these networks varies considerably, with some users having only a handful of online friends while others have over 1,000.
Researchers are unsure if the size of an individual’s virtual network is similar to the scope or extent of a person’s real-world social network.
Geraint Rees, a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Research Fellow at University College London (UCL), said: “Online social networks are massively influential, yet we understand very little about the impact they have on our brains. This has led to a lot of unsupported speculation the Internet is somehow bad for us.
“Our study will help us begin to understand how our interactions with the world are mediated through social networks. This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the internet and the brain – scientific questions, not political ones.”
Rees and colleagues studied brain scans of 125 university students – all active Facebook users – and compared them against the size of the students’ network of friends, both online and in the real world. To ensure the accuracy of their findings, investigators performed an additional analysis on a different group of 40 students and discovered the same results.
Their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The researchers found a strong connection between the number of Facebook friends an individual had and the amount of grey matter in several regions of the brain. Grey matter is the brain tissue where the processing is done. One of these regions was the amygdala, a region associated with processing memory and emotional responses.
A study published recently showed that the volume of grey matter in this area is larger in people with a larger network of real world friends.
In the current study, researchers discovered that the same brain response is true for people with a larger network of online friends.
The size of three other regions – the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex – also correlated with online social networks, but did not appear to correlate with real-world networks.
The superior temporal sulcus plays a role in our ability to perceive a moving object as biological, and structural defects in this region have been identified in some children with autism. The entorhinal cortex, meanwhile, has been linked to memory and navigation – including navigating through online social networks. Finally, the middle temporal gyrus has been shown to activate in response to the gaze of others and so is implicated in perception of social cues.
Ryota Kanai, Ph.D., first author of the study, added: “We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have – both ‘real’ and ‘virtual.’
“The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time – this will help us answer the question of whether the Internet is changing our brains.”
Researchers also examined whether there was a link between the size of a person’s online network of friends and their real world network.
To do this, researchers asked their volunteers questions such as ‘How many people would send a text message to mark a celebratory event (e.g. birthday, new job, etc.)?’, ‘What is the total number of friends in your phonebook?’ and ‘How many friends have you kept from school and university that you could have a friendly conversation with now?’
The responses suggest that the size of their online networks were similar to the size of their real world networks.
“Our findings support the idea that most Facebook users use the site to support their existing social relationships, maintaining or reinforcing these friendships, rather than just creating networks of entirely new, virtual friends,” adds Professor Rees.
This innovative research seeks to help clinicians and scientists study higher cognitive function to understand how thought and perception arise from brain activity, and how such processes break down in neurological and psychiatric disease.
In particular, this new research helps us to begin to understand how the brain may evolve in response to use of social media and the Internet.
Source: Wellcome Trust