Having more Facebook friends could cause brain growth
For the past several years, Facebook has been many people’s main way of communicating and keeping up with various friends, but a new study shows that the number of Facebook friends a person has may have a relationship with how large certain regions of his brain are.
Researchers studied the brain regions that deal with creating memories of names and faces and interpreting social cues. Those social cues in a face-to-face situation might be faces a person makes or hand gestures that are given during a conversation.
The researchers used slightly different brain regions when comparing real-life social situations to brain size than they did when comparing online social situations to brain size.
"Social networks exist in many forms — in the real world, in cyberspace and in many other forms," said University College London professor and study researcher Graint Rees during a press conference Oct. 17. "They are a particular aspect of human behavior that surrounds and affects many aspects of how we live our daily lives."
The researchers performed brain scans on 125 healthy college students and compared the sizes of various regions to how many Facebook friends those college students have on their Facebook profiles.
The regions that were larger when students had more Facebook friends included the superior temporal sulcus and the middle temporal gyrus, both of which process social signals and then help the person interpret those social signals. Other regions studied were the entorhinal cortex, which helps the person match up names with faces, and the amygdalae, which helps interpret emotions through facial expressions.
The researchers also looked into the college students’ real-life social networks and found different results. Those with large real-life social networks did have larger amygdalae, but the other three areas of the brain the researchers looked at did not correspond with the size of the real-life social networks of college students.
Researchers were unable to say which came first, the larger brain regions or the large online social networks, which is a limitation in the study. Actions changing the physical aspects of the brain is not a new idea; in the past, researchers have found that physical activity can increase the size of the part of the brain that regulates coordination, for instance.
"It is also possible, as it is with any correlation, that there's a third factor that's driving it, that's driving the changes in brain structure and the number of friends," Rees said. "The significance isn't so much that it tells the whole story, but it gives us a way to answer important questions."
Another limitation, said researchers, is that the number of friends a person has on Facebook is not necessarily indicative of how many of those friends with whom he or she regularly interacts. A student could have 400 friends on Facebook but interact regularly with only 15 of them.
Reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society
Image credit: Morguefile