Is your brain wired for facebook?

I ‘like’ Facebook as much as the next person, or rather any of the other 950+ million users. The fact that people can stay in touch so easily in a metaphorically shrinking world without having to use a pen, paper, stamp or pigeon carrier is brilliant. However, what really amazes me about Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn or any other social media is the phenomenon of ‘socialness’ itself.

In order to find the ‘social’ or ‘friend’ centre of the brain, scientists measured the size of different brain structures associated with making and maintaining friendships. In two different studies, they found that the size of an individual’s amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain) and their orbital prefrontal cortex (oPFC) were proportional to the number of real friends and social groups they had. In other words either having a larger amygdala or oPFC means you are more likely to be friendlier, or the more friends you ‘add’ to your social network, the larger those parts of the brain become. In fact, it’s probably a mix of both situations.

Robert Dunbar, a British anthropologist interested in the evolution of society, also attempted to define how the structure of the brain linked to the size of an individual’s social group: the equivalent to the average Facebook friend count. His early work focused on the brains of various species of monkey. From this work he found that he could predict the size of the animal’s social group from the size of their neocortex compared to the rest of their brain. He discovered that primate species which have a larger neocortex relative to the rest of the brain hang out in larger social groups, whereas those with a smaller neocortex have fewer ‘friends’. These monkeys’ brains have either evolved or changed to maintain friendships with a certain average number of other monkeys. From this Dunbar was able to predict that, if humans are like monkeys (which we are), our neocortex:brain ratio predicts that we should be cliquing into social groups of around 147.8 (with an upper limit of 300). What’s interesting is that this is essentially the case in real life: 150 is the average size of a tribal village, the optimum size in the Roman army’s military unit and the average number of friends on Facebook is actually creepily close too.

One question raised by Dunbar’s research is how or why the neocortex developed in the first place? The “Social Brain Hypothesis” suggests that primates evolved a larger neocortex and bigger social networks when they started eating fruit instead of leaves. Fruits contain way more calories than leaves, but are also harder to obtain and have a much shorter ‘shelf life’, meaning they pose more problems for a hungry monkey. Therefore if a monkey is to maintain a fruit-rich diet it is important for it to learn where to find fruit and how to tell whether or not it is ripe or safe to eat. It is thought that being part of a bigger social group allows all individuals to benefit from the group’s collective knowledge and thus from the extra energy found in fruit. Since the brain uses up so much energy to develop, it may be that this extra food source is partially responsible for the increase in neocortex size in these primate species.

Whether or not we realise it, most of us are hard-wired to seek out friendship. Our brains are social and we have evolved to cooperate and share – that’s why Facebook is such a massive phenomenon. But what does the size of our ‘friends’ section say about us? In a very modern experiment, psychologists asked people to rate another person’s attractiveness based on a fictional Facebook profile. These profiles were identical other than one factor: for each profile the experimenters altered the number of friends these fictional people had, either 103, 303, 503 or 703. These experiments found that 303 seemed to be the magic number, with participants rating profiles with this number of friends as being most ‘attractive’. Perhaps this could be a reflection of the upper limit of Dunbar’s number. Interestingly, both profiles with lower and higher friend counts were rated as being less attractive. Perhaps fewer friends is taken as an indication that a person is less sociable, whilst having too many friends may be seen as ‘trying too hard’. So when honing your online persona it’s more than just the pictures of that dodgy night out you have to worry about.

So why is Facebook in particular so popular so, dare I say it…addictive? There have been countless studies which show that going onto your Facebook account makes the pleasure centres of the brain, the same ones which activate when eating chocolate or having sex, ‘light up’. It seems that thinking and talking about ourselves is something we all enjoy. Psychologists found that participants in a study were happy to receive very little payment to talk about themselves whereas if they were required to chat about someone else they generally expected at least double the amount. The participants, on average, found talking about themselves so much more enjoyable that they would actually give up money in order to avoid talking about another person instead. Maybe that will help explain why people insist on posting mundane statuses online. (It doesn’t, however, give any excuses for those who use hashtags on Facebook…#wrongsocialmedia.)

But there are many more important benefits from having a strong, optimally-sized social group. Researchers in Kenya watched wild baboons to see how long higher socially ranking males and lower socially ranking males took to heal or recover from naturally occurring injuries and illnesses. Despite the highest and lowest ranked baboons experiencing a similar amount of biological stress, the lower-ranked baboons took an average of six days longer to heal or recover than alpha males. The researchers think this could be due to the positive impact that close friendships have on the immune and repair systems.

I’m definitely not saying that everyone should use Facebook in order to avoid getting ill, or that we should all frantically cull or add friends until our account reaches the magic ‘Dunbar’ number. But next time you log on to your account and scroll aimlessly through the trivial happenings recorded in your newsfeed or indulge in a little chat with an old friend, don’t blame yourself. Our brains are wired up to be social.

Post by: Natasha Bray

2 thoughts on “Is your brain wired for facebook?”

    • Whoops, typo, missed a ‘0’ – thanks for the spot! Predictions say that the count will reach 1 billion pretty soon. In April it was reported that 526 million Facebook users used it every day.

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