Don't Count On Facebook Boosting Your Brainpower Just Yet | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

NPR : News

Filed Under:

Don't Count On Facebook Boosting Your Brainpower Just Yet

A lot of people seem to be running wild with the idea that there is a direct, positive link between Facebook and the brain's grey matter.

I want to believe a study that suggested Facebook can enhance the size of key parts of your brain. Really I do.

But Facebook hasn't been proved to build a bigger brain just yet, and having a bigger brain wouldn't necessary mean you're better at making virtual friends either.

The rush to credulity on this proposition may lie in some of the language used to describe the study; PR materials called the findings a "direct link." That tends to make me think cause and effect. But in this study, that hasn't been proved.

University College London researchers merely found a correlation, not a direct cause, between the amount of grey matter in college students' brains and the number of friends they had on Facebook.

The students with larger, friend networks happened to have more grey matter seen in brain scans. The researchers have emphasized the association and not causation in a statement and a briefing for reporters.

Lead-author Ryota Kanai and his team looked at regions of the brain that have been known to correspond to social cognition: the amygdala, the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the entorhinal cortex.

Grey matter, or the brain tissue responsible for processing, is found in these regions corresponding to memory, emotional response, perception, navigation and reading social cues. In other words, the researchers were looking in the places where social cognition occurs.

When they compared the brain scans of 125 healthy university students to the number of online friends and real-life friends they had, those with more friends had more grey matter in the amygdala — a region already known to be larger in people with a larger network of real-world friends. They also saw more grey matter in the other three brain regions of people with a high number of online friends. The results were replicated in 40 more students.

What do others think? "I'm cautiously optimistic about the relationship," Dr. James Fowler, who wasn't involved in the research, tells Shots. Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California, San Diego, investigates brain function and social networking. His research has shown that genes alone don't dictate social behavior.

So what does the University College researchers' work have going for it?:

  • They're looking in the right place.
  • They did see more grey matter in the brains of people with more virtual friends.
  • Variability in the grey matter occurs across individuals and populations.
  • The brain changes as it matures.
  • More grey matter doesn't necessarily mean better social networking.
  • Further research needs to be done to directly connect the two factors.

"Next they should do a functional study," Fowler says. "What happens when people are actually on Facebook? Is increasing the amount of engagement simultaneously causing our brains to change to make social interaction more enjoyable?"

The findings appeared Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Director Mike Nichols Remembered As A Comedian, Raconteur, Charmer

Robert Siegel remembers director and film icon Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at 83.
NPR

Moderate Drinker Or Alcoholic? Many Americans Fall In Between

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 1 in 3 adults drinks excessively. That means eight or more drinks per week for women, and 15 or more drinks a week for men.
NPR

'I Will Not Sit Idly By' And Other Congressional Tweets On Immigration

Congress is out of session until the first week of December, so many members are weighing in on the president's speech on Twitter and other platforms — with mixed reactions.
NPR

Keep Your Head Up: 'Text Neck' Takes A Toll On The Spine

Newly published research finds that common texting posture can put as much as 60 pounds of force on the cervical spine.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.