Big Brains, Big Social Networks

IMG_2038Thanks to social media and the vast span of the internet, I thought it would be fitting to to summarize interesting research about the size of our brains and how that relates to our social networks.

Ok, so lets dive into this. A recent study by Rebecca Von Der Heide and her colleagues at Temple University wanted to figure out whether the size of one’s social network is predicted by brain structure and function. Other studies have found inconsistent results, especially when it comes to which areas of the brain are involved in social network size. One possibility is that different questionnaires that measure social network size ask different questions.  Dr. Von Der Heide wanted to accurately examine social network size by using better measures; specifically, she wanted to know the relationship between the size of one’s social network and changes in the brain. Lastly, she wanted to understand why some people might have larger social networks than others. To do this, Dr. Von Der Heide and her colleagues conducted an experiment with 45 women between the ages of 12 to 30. She asked them about their social networks by having participants look up and report the number of ‘friends’ they had on Facebook, report the number of individual’s they had social contact with over the last 30 days in real life (not just social media), and detail their social support systems. To understand how these questionnaires were related to the brain, she used MRI and fMRI (brain imaging) to examine the brain of these women.

pexels-photo-267399Overall, Dr. Von Der Heide found that brain differences (specifically volumetric differences, as well as neural activity differences) predicted the size of one’s social network. In case you are interested in specific brain areas, her study showed that the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and entorhinal/ventromedial anterior temporal lobe are  involved in the maintenance of strong social networks. All in all, if you have a large social network, these areas of the brain are larger (have more volume). We don’t really understand why this is the case, but that’s the next step for future research.

This leads to some other interesting questions. Does having more social relationships expand your brain? Or is it the other way around? Can your brain change if you just add friends to your social network? Or do we first need treatments/therapies that target the brain to then allow you to desire more friends? These are all interesting questions that need to be answered. In the mean time, get out there and make some more friends! It’s good for the brain!


This post was based on: Von Der Heide, R., Vyas, G., and Olson, I.R. (2014). The social network-network: size is predicted by brain structure and function in the amygdala and paralimbic region. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2014.

Bickart, K.C., Wright, C.I., Dautoff, R.J., Dickerson, B.C., Barrett, L.F. (2010). Amygdala volume and social network size in humans. Nature Neuroscience, 14(2), 163–4.

Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Roylance, R., Rees, G. (2012). Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1732), 1327–34.

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