A study by researchers at University College London indicates that there may be a correlation between Facebook use and the density of the part of the brain that is linked to social skills. But which is it? Is increased grey matter the result of spending more time interacting on social networks, or is it simply that those individuals with a greater cerebral capacity for socialising have higher than average Facebook friend counts?
The study saw 165 adults undergo MRI scans, as well as being asked to report how many Facebook friends they had. The part of the brain that is already known to be linked to real life social networking capacity and size, the amygdala, was found to have a higher grey matter density in those subjects who had a higher friend count. Similar trends were found in other regions of the brain, including the right entorhinal cortex, which is associated with memory.
This all sounds a little tit-for-tat. If you’ll allow me to put on my ‘BSc Hons’ hat for a moment (I’m actually a Biology Graduate, don’tcha know) I’ll chip in with my 2 cents. Without a controlled experiment to see how dense people’s grey matter are before they start using Facebook, and then plotting a linear progression, as well as measuring the grey matter of those who have no access to social networks, it will be hard to say which is influencing the other, if indeed they are. I know plenty of people who are extremely socially adept, yet they don’t use Facebook. It’s fair to say that if you are naturally a very sociable person (presumably with a higher density of grey matter in the amygdala), then as soon as you introduce a means of measuring ‘sociability’ – number of Facebook friends is a good a yardstick as any – then I’d say it’s fair to assume that the number will be comparatively high when compared to a more reserved, quieter individual.
The brain has been evolving for millions of years, and evolution (in terms of natural selection) is essentially a physiological response to a change in external stimuli. Species have been socialising for just as long, so I think that it’s a case of art imitating life. Having said that, I’m no expert compared to Professor Geraint Rees, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, although he is also undecided. He says it’s too early to tell how the structure of the brain and online social networking activity are connected: “What we’re attempting to do is get an empirical handle using the types of data we can generate to try and start that process rolling.”