Facebook Friends Don’t Let Friends Forget Them

In a series of experiments, Ryota Kanai, a researcher at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, had college students between the ages of 19 and 28 state their Facebook network size, then scanned their brains by MRI. “The most surprising thing,” Kanai says, “was [that] there was any correlation at all.”

My dad's brain during a pet scan today


Though Facebook relationships may only be so deep, Facebook’s connection with us goes all the way to the base of our brain. A new study on a group of college kids has revealed a link between brain structure and the size of your virtual social network. 

Ryota Kanai, a researcher at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the lead on the study, was analyzing social relationships and looking for a way to quantify how big users’s social circles were. “If we were to ask you how many [real life] friends you had, it would be difficult to say,” Kanai tells Fast Company. “The nice thing about Facebook is that it’s easy to have one number about how many friends you have.” 

So, in a series of experiments, Kanai had college students between the ages of 19 and 28 state their Facebook network size, then scanned their brains by MRI. “The most surprising thing was there was any correlation at all,” Kanai says. The team found that the larger someone’s social network, the denser the gray matter in the amygdala and three other parts of the brain that play a role in memory and social perception.

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. 

Kanai’s work, published this week, builds on a previous study published in Nature Neuroscience last year. There, a group of Boston researchers traced a neural link between people’s offline lives and their brain architecture. “We found that the larger their amygdala, the larger their real world social network,” Brad Dickerson, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and a team member on the Nature Neuroscience study, tells Fast Company. The amygdala–which is the hot part of the brain, thanks to the zombification of pop culture–is where we process intense emotions such as fear and pleasure.

The neural basis of friends and social networks goes beyond people–it’s been a rich area of primate research, Dickerson explains. “If you compare monkeys, there are some that live in richly connected social networks–they have hierarchies and social rules–[and] there are other species who don’t live in groups or follow rules.” The more socially demonstrative primates had a larger amygdala–a trend that Dickerson and his group confirmed existed in people as well.


Kanai’s Facebook study takes that analysis one step further, teasing apart the brain bits that were uniquely associated with virtual network-building. 

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, who’s spent a decade studying how new media and social networks have crept into our lives, wonders if Facebook friends size serve as a predictor for other behaviors: “If a certain type of person is likely to have such brain patterns and more likely to use Facebook to build larger networks,” she wrote in an email to Fast Company, “does a large network on Facebook serve as a predictive function for other kinds of practices or attitudes?” Again–too soon to say, but just one of the several questions that spring from Kanai and Co.’s initial observation. 

Considering Facebook wasn’t around even a decade ago, do Kanai’s findings suggest our brains are different now? “To really understand that question we need to compare the brain structure between people who’ve never used the Interent and people who’ve used the Internet for many years,” Kanai says. As it turns out, that’s going to be his next project.

[Image: Flickr user Susan NYC]

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow on Twitter, Google+.