Wednesday, 4 April 2012

What Your Facebook Account (doesn’t say) About Your Brain

Although I couldn’t find the original papers, after reading this article, I just had to say (write) something. It is the biggest piece of tosh I have read in a while, courtesy of the field of “psychology”.

The article suggests that people who have more friends on Facebook have a larger orbital prefrontal cortex. It then goes on to say that this region of the brain is involved in “complex cognitive processes”, thus implying that using Facebook is a “complex cognitive process”. While I don’t dispute that it is often difficult to keep track of “who is sleeping with whom, who is making alliances with whom”, I would by no means consider this a complex cognitive process. Yet the article appears to suggest some sort of relationship between the number of friends a person has on Facebook and “complex” cognition, suggesting that those with more “friends” are somehow smarter than those with fewer. I would argue on the contrary – those who spend more time on Facebook and less time doing something worthwhile (like complex cognitive processes) are less likely to be smart, surely.

Just a further point, before I go on, the article claims:

“Establishing and maintaining many social relationships requires a great deal of brainpower.”

It may indeed, in reality. I wouldn’t, however, say this was true of “virtual” friends on Facebook. If a person has over 1000 friends, say, on Facebook, are they really keeping track of every single one of them? I highly doubt it.

The article goes on to say that research has shown that monkeys and apes who live in large social groups tend to have larger brain size, specifically of the prefrontal cortex. This is probably true, but again, I point out that Facebook is NOT the same as normal socialising. It definitely isn’t the same sort of socialising the monkeys in the research were doing. Thus, this comparison is invalid.

Furthermore, the article says that:

“…people with larger social networks (including the number of friends on Facebook) also have a larger amygdala (a brain region involved in emotion regulation).”

This seems to imply that people with more friends on Facebook are somehow more emotionally active. I would argue the exact opposite. From my experience, those with many friends on Facebook (>1000) are less emotionally active. They probably have a shallow knowledge of these “friends”, adding them after meeting them once at a party, and then never speaking to them again. How much do they actually communicate with these people, on an emotional level? Not much, I would argue. Besides, I would consider those with a large number of Facebook friends somewhat shallow, trying to show off their “popularity” to their 7364 “friends“.

I don’t know, maybe my dislike for Facebook has influenced my opinions, being a Twitter user myself. Personally, I don’t have many Facebook friends (around 100), since I feel this makes my experience on Facebook more personal. I have more meaningful virtual contact with my friends, rather than being bombarded with “relationship statuses” from people I barely know.

So, does this mean I have a smaller orbital prefrontal cortex? Am I less intelligent as a result? Or do I have a smaller amygdala? Am I less emotional?

I don’t think so.


  • llacerta says:
    9 September 2012 at 16:30

    I found the papers that this article was ‘based’ on, and it’s a bit awkward, because neither of them actually mention Facebook, as far as I can see…The first one says, as follows:

    ” This involved listing the initials of everyone the participant had personal contact with or communicated with over the previous 7 days.”

    Because yes, that’s Facebook, obviously.

    The original articles aren’t that bad (though the whole correlation and causation thing comes into play) but it’s obvious that the author of this article has quite the power of extrapolation.

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