This Is Your Brain On Facebook

20 10 2011

I wish we had Facebook when I was getting my PhD. There would have been no shortage of interesting topics to explore for the dissertation. There is probably no single force in global society these days that has had a greater impact than has our beloved Facebook. With over 800 million users (and still growing), it is now two-thirds the size of China. Or 2 1/2 times the size of the US.

Facebook loves to tout its user statistics, and rightfully so. But if I were a doctoral student these days, I would be almost giddy at the prospect of doing my research on the FB phenomenon.

Of course, that shouldn’t and won’t stop my research partners and me from exploring it. I am utterly fascinated at how one website has so radically changed our lives. Just yesterday I reconnected with two people I have not seen since 1971, when my family moved 12 miles away across Chicago suburbia. I never could have made those connections were it not for the shared platform that FB has become.

Of course, cynics can say that had I really wanted to stay in touch with them (or they with me), we would have done it the old-fashioned way. But that’s beside the point. People have been losing touch with one another for decades. Witness the many high school reunions still taking place, reuniting long-lost friends and lovers, without benefit of Facebook. Guilt may transcend technology, but technology enables us in ways we never before could have imagined possible.

Today, though, I read this article about how researchers have started using fMRIs to map the brain of FB users, and found there to be a strong correlation between a person’s FB network (i.e., number of friends) and the size of their amygdala. Basically, the more friends you have, the thicker your amygdala is.

And if I have lost you here, the amygdala is where we process emotions like fear and pleasure. The lead researcher, Ryota Kanai, was surprised to find the correlation. “Kanai is quick to point out that they don’t yet know if using Facebook changes our brain structure. While that’s one explanation for his findings, it’s also possible that people who have more Facebook friends have brains that came equipped with better friend-making tools,” the report concluded.

As you may recall from your basic stats class, correlations do not imply causation. Just because two things are related does not mean that one causes the other (or vice-versa). Still, the relationship means that this area alone is ripe for further research.

And, should a cause-and-effect relationship be found (e.g., that a bigger amygdala predicts Facebook network size), it would then open the door for countless research projects into what else it might predict. Does this bigger amygdala and resulting larger social network then lead to measurable shopping behaviors and predilections, for example? Does this mean a person is more gregarious, and by virtue of this, more willing to try new products? Can we draw other marketing conclusions based on this nugget of information? And for that matter, could a person’s Facebook network serve as a proxy for amygdala size, and then be used to predict consumer behavioral outcomes?

If that’s the course, I can see all kinds of targeted advertising to heavily-networked FB users/ The more friends you have, the more the marketing. But not necessarily merrier.

As for me, I would love to have one of those fMRI machines at my disposal. I could have a lot of fun peaking behind the curtain while folks fiddled with their Facebook. Until then, though, my partners and I will have to settle for survey research and focus groups.

You’ve been forewarned.

Dr “Research Is Its Own Reward” Gerlich


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