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The more Facebook friends you have, the bigger your brain is

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Scientists use brain scans to reveal find out how social network popularity is linked to brain size.

We know that Google makes us stupid - and can affect the way we remember information. But when it comes to social media popularity, the size of your brain matters.

Scientists at the University College London used brain scans to understand how Facebook and brain structure are related and found that the number of Facebook friends is linked to the size of certain brain regions. This may explain why some people have a few hundred friends online while other have thousands of friends on Facebook.

The researchers took brain scans of 125 college students and published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. This is one of the first studies to look at the relationship between brain size and social networks.

The scientists also found that the number of friends people had online, usually meant they had more friends off-line.

UCL's Ryota Kanai said in a statement: "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."

In the study, the scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to produce photos of the participants’ brains. The scientists looked at certain regions associated with social perception and memory:

  • The superior temporal sulcus: helps us understand how others' emotions are being directed
  • The entorhinal cortex: important for memory and navigation (including online social networks).
  • The middle temporal gyrus: helps people recognize known faces

The study is significant because “it shows we can use neuroscience to address questions about the effect online social networks have on the brain,” UCL’s Geraint Rees said.

However, the scientists have emphasized that they cannot tell if this means brains are hard-wired for social networks or if it is the other way around - that a large number of friends on Facebook might influence their brain structure.

Considering that Americans spent 53.5 billion minutes on Facebook in one month and that people tweet out 250 million messages a day, understanding social media's impact on human beings will become more important as we spend more of our time communicating and connecting online.

“This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the internet and the brain – scientific questions, not political ones," Rees added.

Social networks have been known to cause changes in the brains of young users - making them more self-centered and shortening their attention spans.

Due to the short, real-time nature of messages sent over Twitter, the micro-blogging site has been blamed for causing social numbness.

But here's a conclusion about social media that doesn't require a brain scan. Being social on the Internet can be rather exhausting as sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ compete for some of our attention.

via Wellcome Trust

Photo: flickr/ dan taylor

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure