A study whose results are to be released in leading British biological research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, recently tried to answer this question.
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The results showed that in people who had more friends on Facebook, three areas of the brain, all linked with the power to socialise, were noticeably bigger and denser than those who had fewer Facebook-friends.
Two of the areas, the superior temporal sulcus and the middle temporal gyrus, “are associated with social perception such as perceiving other people’s gaze or social cues from facial expressions”, Dr Ryota Kanai of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (ULC) explained.
The entorhinal complex on the other hand, “might be associated with memory for faces and names,” he said.
It is not the first time that the effects of social networks on the brain have been debated.
Two years ago, Oxford University neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield caused an online furore with her controversial findings on the effects of social networking on developing brains.
“The mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity,” Baroness Greenfield warned in a now infamous speech to Britain’s House of Lords in which she has a seat.
Professor Geraint Rees, also of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at ULC and lead investigator on this latest study, saw links between his study and Baroness Greenfield’s findings.
He also recognised, however, a point of contention about his study — the question of cause-or-effect.
Did people with lots of Facebook friends, have these enlarged areas because they had a lot of friends on Facebook, or did they have a lot of friends on Facebook because they had had enlarged socialising areas of the brain? Only further study would resolve this riddle, Professor Rees said.
Rees’ team studied 125 students with an average age of 23, 46 of them men, under 3D scanners.
The average number of friends per volunteer was 300, but the number of Facebook friends amongst the members of the study group ranged from just several to nearly 1 000.
To double check the results, an entirely separate sample of 40 students was also tested.
A third group, made up of a sub-sample of 65 was tested in attempts to see whether there was a link between the online world and real world in brain structure. This sub-sample, in addition to being scanned also had to fill out a questionnaire about friends in the real world.
Professor Rees found the results of the correlation between online and real-life friends on the brain “curious”.
Matching the tally of real world friendships with that of online friendships, the scientists found only one correlation in brain matter in an area called the bilateral amygdala. This area is believed to process and store memories of emotional events.
In the first experiment, no such association in the three brain areas — the superior temporal sulcus, middle temporal gyrus or entorhinal complex — had been found.
This was seen as “curious” in that it could perhaps signify that different areas of the brain are used for different forms of socialising, according to Professor Rees.
It is a well known and accepted fact that the brain is a flexible organ. If a person learns a particular motor skill then the grey matter in the motor cortex, which controls muscles, becomes thicker. But bigger does not necessarily mean better Professor Rees added.
“There are also examples of the other way around, where more grey matter is associated with more distractibility, in trying to concentrate on a particular task.”
“So we don’t know yet the exact relationship, whether more (grey matter with online networking) is good or not, and we don’t know yet the exact cellular constituents, the exact type of nerve cell and what exactly is happening. That’s really for future research.”
Image: Sharp Brains