Ubiquitous as Facebook has become, it still feels somewhat jarring when a new MRI study is published about its possible effects on the brain. Is Facebook so all-important that medical research studies about it are now necessary? Truly though, what started out as a photo-sharing website for university students has pervaded into nearly every aspect of worldwide culture; it seems clear now that the ever-popular social media site has become a way of life, and won’t be going away any time soon.
But how is it changing our brains?
A study published a month ago in the Proceedings of the Royal Society has found correlations between the amount of friends an individual has on Facebook, and the gray matter density in a few different areas of the brain. The primary source of the correlation–whether or not Facebook is the cause or merely the effect of these findings–remains unknown.
125 students whose age averaged at 23 years and whose Facebook friends averaged at 300, participated in the study. 80 of the students were asked to fill out a questionnaire further illustrating their social lives outside of facebook.com. Then the students underwent MRI of the brain, and a correlation was quickly found between amount of Facebook friends and the volume of gray matter in three specific areas of the brain:
-the medial temporal gyrus, responsible for processing social facts and information
-the posterior STS, responsible for processing social cues like body language, facial expressions and eye movements
-the enthorhinal cortex, responsible for–among other things–putting names to faces
The authors of the study, Dr. Ryota Kanai and Professor Grant Rees of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, wrote in closing: “Finally, our study…cannot determine whether the relationship between brain structure and social network participation arises over time through friendship-dependent plasticity in the brain areas involved; or alternatively whether individuals with a specific brain structure are predisposed to acquire more friends than others. The relative contributions of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ therefore remain to be determined.”