Thus far, researchers are uncertain as to whether using social networks increases grey matter or if those with an abundance of grey matter are ‘social butterflies’ that are just good at making friends. In other words, they have yet to prove causation, but that doesn’t make the study less interesting. The affected regions play important roles in social interaction, memory and autism.
The study’s results were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences journal. In it, the researchers observed 3-D brain scans of 125 university students from London. Researchers counted the number of Facebook friends that each volunteer in the study had, and examined each person’s network of real friends.
A strong correlation was found between the number of Facebook friends that a person had and the amount of grey matter in certain parts of their brain. The study also found that the number of Facebook friends that a person was in touch with closely correlated with that person’s number of “real-world” friends.
Dr. Ryota Kanai, one of the scientists from University College London, comments "We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have - both 'real' and 'virtual'." "The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time. This will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains." One area involved in the process is the amygdala, which is connected to memory and emotional stimuli.
"This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the internet and the brain - scientific questions, not political ones," Dr. Rees said. Facebook, now the world’s most popular social networking site, has more than 800 million active users from across the globe. Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, which financed the study, said: "We cannot escape the ubiquity of the internet and its impact on our lives, yet we understand little of its impact on the brain, which we know is plastic and can change over time.
"Perhaps the number of Facebook friends you have is more strongly related to how much time you spend on the internet, how old you are, or what mobile phone you have," says Dr. Heidi Johansen-Berg. "The study cannot tell us whether using the internet is good or bad for our brains." And that is an important distinction to point out.
BBC Photo by : Tore Alvheim