Social on Your Mind: What Social Media Does to Your Brain

You spend all day tweeting, liking, posting, and sharing, but what are these practices doing to your most important tool—your brain? The human brain has had to adapt to many changes throughout history as new technologies were introduced (the printing press, anyone?) and the acceleration of the Internet and social media has shown fascinating effects on the mind.

Neuroplasticity, or “the brain’s ability to alter its behavior based on new experiences,” has been put into overdrive as social media became not just a hobby but a lifestyle and full-time career for many. We’ve all heard that uncle at Thanksgiving who declares that those darn kids on their smartphones are numbing their brain cells thanks to all the “tweetering,” so we decided to take a look at what is actually going on in your head as you experience the world through social.

Spoiler alert: your uncle might need something else to rant about over turkey next year.

Grey matters

While we can talk endlessly about the sociological and cultural effects of social media, the physiological effects on the brain are rarely discussed. This can reasonably be attributed to social media’s relative newness and a lack of research done on the subject. Still, what little research that has been published is definitely worth exploring.

According to a study by The Royal Society, the amount of Facebook friends you have can directly correlate with the amount of grey matter your brain has. Scientists measured the amount of grey matter, the part of the brain responsible for memory, emotions, speech, sensory perception, and muscle control, and “found that the more Facebook friends a person had, the larger the volume of their grey matter in several regions of the brain.” The first author of the study, Dr. Ryota Kanai went on to explain, “We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have—both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time—this will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains.”

However, with there being no clear reason why this is the case, it remains a kind of chicken and egg situation where it’s not certain whether people who have large amounts of grey matter are naturally programmed to do well on social media, or whether the grey matter builds due to the amount of Facebook friends a person has. Regardless, it’s an intriguing relationship that deserves more attention.

Refresh your memory

With memory being one of the main functions of this grey matter, the effect of social media on our ability to recall events is often questioned. Many whine that because, for example,  we can use social media to talk to someone rather than having to memorize their phone number and contact details, we are damaging our memories. The scientific evidence proves otherwise.

In 2012, researchers Tracy Packiam Alloway and Ross Geoffrey published a paper entitled “The impact of engagement with social networking sites (SNSs) on cognitive skills,” to examine the effects of different social media channels on our working memory, attention skills, and levels of social connectedness. They found that different activities on different platforms positively affected the working memory of participants.

For example, they had one participant check their friends’ Facebook status updates, and the more that this was done, the more positively the working memory levels grew. It makes sense that in taking in more information—more status updates, more images, more interactions—our brains have to work harder to keep up. Like a muscle, the more the brain is exercised, the stronger it can grow.

Checking a status update means that not only does your brain have to see and process the information, but has to remember it and update the “database” of memories all have. If you saw on Facebook that your friend’s sister had a baby, you would want to remember this information and the details to congratulate her the next time you see her. This is a social practice and need that has been around since long before the days of social media, but the idea of “transactive memory”—using others around you to fill in the blanks of your memories —is one that social media has been shown to have affected.

Clive Thompson, author of “Smarter Than You Think,” explains that this kind of memory power “allows us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us to do alone.” Where before individuals would rely on their spouses, friends, or people around them to fill in the blanks (i.e. what was your sister’s baby’s name again?) social media is now acting as the storage bank for this info. Furthermore, now that your brain is free from storing all these facts that social media can take care of (birthdays, contact information, etc.), it is open and able to make room for, and concentrate on, more important things (such as the name of that sloth video your best friend needs to watch).

However, it is definitely worth mentioning that these positive effects are diminished when the participant was multitasking on social media. The researchers conducting the study above found that memory and attention span lessened when the participants were using more than one screen or platform at a time, which is how many of us automatically use social media.  In one study, “heavy social media multitaskers” were “found to be more susceptible to interference from environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory,” suggesting the negative effect on memory power when multitasking. The same paper, however, suggests that this could possibly change as younger users grow up and adapt to this way of using the Internet and social media, and thus are able to do so more efficiently. Either way, it will be a compelling phenomenon to witness.

Emotional programming

Aside from the grey matter discussed above, social media has the same power over your brain as many “real life” interactions. Researchers at Tokyo Denki University found that the use of emojis in online communication triggered the same part of the brain engaged by one-on-one emotional contact. Here, the exchange of emojis was found to exercise the parts of the brain areas that affect emotion and social. Author of iBrain, Dr. Gary Small, explained that “when volunteers viewed emoticons during an MRI scan, their right inferior frontal gyrus was activated.”

This idea relates to the concept of “neuroeconomics,” the combination of biology, neuroscience, and psychology which tries to understand the chemical relationship between “what a person is doing at a particular time (especially online), and the specific release of certain chemicals into the brain.” Neuroeconomist Paul Zak ran some experiments and MRI-based tests on participants while they used Twitter and Facebook, and found that the brain understands social media interactions and connections just as it would “real world” interactions through the release of a magical chemical called oxytocin. This is the same chemical released during the bonding between a mother and her baby, when we eat foods that we love, when we earn money, and when we do anything that gives us a sense of satisfaction and pleasure.

You know how great you feel when you get a like or a positive comment on your latest selfie? This is because every time we receive a notification, an area of our brain called the nucleus accumbens lights up to give us this sense of gratification. While this allows social media to be a kind of stress ball for many, the reward cues that those notifications trigger can be addicting for those with addictive personalities.

In a kind of Pavlov’s dog metaphor, the release of dopamine—one of the brain’s chemicals responsible for the reward-motivated behaviours and addiction—is triggered by the buildup of anticipation and rewards. So when you’re waiting for your amazing lakeside photo to blow up on Instagram, what you are essentially trained to wait for are the reward cues in your brain to be released. As these are the same areas in the brain that light up when one takes heroin or other addictive substances, many have sensationally proclaimed social media a type of drug. However, if sticking to the solid “everything in moderation” principle and know your limit, the benefits of social media for the brain are obviously of incredible value.