Let’s put it this way: If you find yourself looking forward to writing a Facebook status update or a Twitter post, the reason is that sharing activates the same centers in the brain that give us pleasure in food, money and … you guessed it, sex.
Or so say researchers at Harvard, who conducted three studies on what happens in our brains when we talk about ourselves — whether in conversation or on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with colleague Jason Mitchell, told The Wall Street Journal. “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves,” she said.
Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The three experiments
The dozens of test subjects were volunteers, mostly Americans, who lived near Harvard. Here’s how Tamir and Mitchell determined what happens in the brain when we talk about ourselves:
Scanning the brain
In one study, they hooked subjects up to fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanners, which monitor blood flow in the neurons associated with mental activity. They then had the subjects speak about themselves and answer questions about other people’s opinions. The fMRI showed which areas of the brain responded strongly when people talk about their own opinions.
As the LA Times says, “The researchers found that the brain regions associated with reward — the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) — were strongly engaged when people were talking about themselves, and less engaged when they were talking about someone else.” Those are the areas that also get triggered when we get pleasure from food, money or sex.
Earn or self-disclose
In another study, the researchers offered the participants money (okay, it was between one and four cents) depending on what they chose to talk about: themselves, other people such as President Obama or facts.
The payment amounts varied across all questions, but people did not consistently choose the highest-paying topic. They were willing to give up 17% of their potential profit in order to do what was more enjoyable: talk about themselves. When the potential gain was equal, people chose to talk about themselves two-thirds of the time.
Need an audience?
Finally, the scientists also looked at whether having an audience influences how much pleasure you get from self-disclosure. They wanted to understand whether self-disclosure was rewarding because people got pleasure from thinking about themselves or because from they liked knowing that someone else would hear the disclosure.
When people had the choice of keeping their ideas to themselves or sharing them, they were willing to forgo 25% of their potential earnings in order to have an audience.
Social media explained
Well, if you’ve ever wondered just why someone who just robbed a house would then brag about it on Facebook or why someone would feel the need to tell the Twitterverse that they are about to eat a ham sandwich, now you know. In fact, recent surveys of Internet use show that about four in five social media posts simply announce what the poster is experiencing at that moment.
“I think the study helps to explain why people utilize social media websites so often,” Tamir said. “I think it helps explain why Twitter exists and why Facebook is so popular, because people enjoy sharing information about each other.”
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photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr