Monday, November 16, 2015

The Neuroscience of Social Media: An Unofficial History

There's a new article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences about how neuroscientists can incorporate social media into their research on the neural correlates of social cognition (Meshi et al., 2015). The authors outlined the sorts of social behaviors that can be studied via participants' use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.: (1) broadcasting information; (2) receiving feedback; (3) observing others' broadcasts; (4) providing feedback; (5) comparing self to others.

Meshi, Tamir, and Heekeren / Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2015)

More broadly, these activities tap into processes and constructs like emotional state, personality, social conformity, and how people manage their self-presentation and social connections. You know, things that exist IRL (this is an important point to keep in mind for later).

The neural systems that mediate these phenomena, as studied by social cognitive neuroscience types, are the Mentalizing Network (in blue below), the Self-Referential Network (red), and the Reward Network (green).

Fig. 2 (Meshi et al., 2015). Proposed Brain Networks Involved in Social Media Use.  (i) mentalizing network: dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), anterior temporal lobe (ATL), inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC). (ii) self-referential network: medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and PCC. (iii) reward network: ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), ventral striatum (VS), ventral tegmental area (VTA). 

The article's publication was announced on social media:

I anticipated this day in 2009, when I wrote several satirical articles about the neurology of Twitter.  I proposed that someone should do a study to examine the neural correlates of Twitter use:
It was bound to happen. Some neuroimaging lab will conduct an actual fMRI experiment to examine the so-called "Neural Correlates of Twitter" -- so why not write a preemptive blog post to report on the predicted results from such a study, before anyone can publish the actual findings?

Here are the conditions I proposed, and the predicted results (a portion of the original post is reproduced below).

A low-level baseline condition (viewing "+") and an active baseline condition (reading the public timeline [public timeline no longer exists] of random tweets from strangers) will be compared to three active conditions:

(1) Celebrity Fluff

(2) Social Media Marketing Drivel

(3) Friends on your Following List

... The hemodynamic response function to the active control condition will be compared to those from Conditions 1-3 above. Contrasts between each of these conditions and the low-level baseline will also be performed.

The major predicted results are as follows:
Fig. 2A. (Mitchell et al., 2006). A region of ventral mPFC showed greater activation during judgments of the target to whom participants considered themselves to be more similar.

  • Reading the stream of Celebrity Fluff will activate the frontal eye fields to a much greater extent than the control condition, as the participants will be engaged in rolling their eyes in response to the inane banter.
Figure from Paul Pietsch, Ph.D. The frontal eye fields are in a stamp-sized zone at the posterior end of the middle frontal gyri. 

  • Reading the stream of Social Media Marketing Drivel will tax the neural circuits involved in generating a feeling of disgust, including the anterior insula, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex-temporal pole, and putamen-globus pallidus (Mataix-Cols et al., 2008)
Fig. 1A (Jabbi et al., 2008). Coronal slice (y = 18) showing the location of the ROI (white) previously shown to be involved in the experience and observation of disgust.

In conclusion, we predict that the observed patterns of brain activity will be dependent on the nature of the Twitter material being read. These distinct neural networks are expected to reflect the cognitive, emotional, and visceral processes underlying the rapidly changing content of digital media, which ultimately results in "rewiring" of the brain.

Back to the present post...

Not too far off, eh?

Although the TICS piece mentioned that seven social media neuroscience articles have been published to date1 (none quite like that one), it didn't review them. Bloggers have covered some of these (e.g., The Facebook Brain and More Friends on Facebook Does NOT Equal a Larger Amygdala) and related topics like social media use and personality, Facebook neuromarketing, metaphorical Facebook cells, Twitter psychosis (interview), “internet addiction”, textmania, and the lack of evidence that social network sites “damage social relationships” or cause depression.

After discussing the many ways in which social media data can be used as a proxy for real-world behavior, Meshi et al. mentioned some conspicuous differences between online and offline behavior (e.g., online disinhibition as illustrated by trolls, overly disclosive trainwreck LiveJournals, and TMI). This brings us to the “What the Internet is doing to our brains” brigade of unsupported scaremongering:

Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned.

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred.

The claims from neuroscientist Susan Greenfield will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day.

Susan Greenfield, Susan Greenfield

No history of social media neuroscience is complete without the unsubstantiated claims of Baroness Susan Greenfield an extremely prominent British neuroscientist, author, and broadcaster: 'My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.'  Although she declares the dangers of digital Mind Change far and wide, such statements are not backed by careful peer reviewed studies.

Susan Greenfield: I am not some greedy harridan

She is concerned that those who live only in the present, online, don’t allow their malleable brains to develop properly. “It’s not going to destroy the planet but is it going to be a planet worth living in if you have a load of breezy people who go around saying yaka-wow. Is that the society we want?”

A team of British psychologists, neuroscientists, bloggers, and science writers have been trying for ages to rebut the Baroness asking her to produce reliable evidence for her dire assertions (see Appendix). 

The neuroscience of social media isn't just emerging. It's been with us for over ten years.


1 One of these seven references is not a peer-reviewed paper, it's an abstract for a conference that's starting in a few days. I found it here: Facebook Network Structure and Brain Reactivity to Social Exclusion.

And there are actually more publications than that. One was covered in a post by Mo Costandi, Shared brain activity predicts audience preferences. There was a review article on Social Rewards and Social Networks in the Human Brain. There's a very recent paper on cortisol and Facebook behaviors in teens (likely that Meshi et al. hadn't seen it). But oddly, the 2012 TICS commentary by Stafford and Bell (Brain network: social media and the cognitive scientist) wasn't cited.


Meshi D, Tamir TI, Heekeren HR (2015). The Emerging Neuroscience of Social Media. Trends in Cognitive Sciences : 10.1016/j.tics.2015.09.004

Appendix: The “Rational UK Neuroscientists and Writers vs. Susan Greenfield” Collection

Breezy People Mind Hacks (Vaughan Bell) remember #yakawow?

Does the internet rewire your brain? Mind Hacks/BBC Future (Tom Stafford)

The brain melting internet Mind Hacks (Vaughan Bell)

The elusive hypothesis of Baroness Greenfield The Lay Scientist (Martin Robbins)

Mind Change: Susan Greenfield has a big idea, but what is it? The Lay Scientist (Martin Robbins)

Twitter Vs Dr. Susan Greenfield Neurobonkers (Simon Oxenham)

A little more conversation Speaking Out (Sophie Scott)

Susan Greenfield's Dopamine Disaster Neuroskeptic

Is the internet changing our brains? BPS Research Digest (Christian Jarrett)

Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist Bad Science (Ben Goldacre)

Digital tech, the BMJ, and The Baroness Mind Hacks (Vaughan Bell)

An open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield BishopBlog (Dorothy Bishop)

On Greenfield Counterbalanced (Pete Etchells)

Facebook will destroy your children's brains The Lay Scientist (Martin Robbins)
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have left a generation of young adults vulnerable to degeneration of the brain, we can exclusively reveal for about the fifth time. Symptoms include self-obsession, short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback, according to a 'top scientist' with no record of published research on the issue.
. . . 

The scientist believes that use of the internet – and computer games – could 'rewire' the brain, causing neurons to establish new connections and pathways. "Rewiring itself is something that the brain does naturally all the time," the professor said, "but the phrase 'rewiring the brain' sounds really dramatic and chilling, so I like to use it to make it seem like I'm talking about a profound and unnatural change, even though it isn't."

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At November 18, 2015 8:41 AM, Blogger Martin Hoffmann said...

I tried to find a good place just for posting advertisments for education institutes, Psychoneuroxy hit it right on the nose.

At November 24, 2015 7:27 AM, Anonymous Linsop said...

Love the article. You might also be interested in this:


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