Does Facebook alter the brain? That’s the question which flows from an unusual investigation into the online social network used by 800 million people. Volunteers placed in a 3-D scanner had bigger, denser structures in three areas of the brain if they had a big list of Facebook friends compared to counterparts who had few online friends, scientists found. The three locations are all linked with the power to socialise.
The superior temporal sulcus and middle temporal gyrus, “are associated with social perception such as perceiving other people’s gaze or social cues from facial expressions”, said University College London researcher Ryota Kanai. The third area, the entorhinal complex, “might be associated with memory for faces and names”, he said. Two years ago, Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield unleashed a storm about online networking and its impact on the young. “The mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity,” Greenfield warned in a speech to Britain’s House of Lords.
Lead investigator Geraint Rees, a UCL professor of neuroscience, said the new study opened up key questions touching on this controversy. Among them: whether the size of the socialising area of the brain leads one to create more friends — and whether this area is changed by online social networks… or not at all. Only further work would resolve this cause-or-effect riddle, he said. The study appears on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published by Britain’s de-facto academy of sciences.