Does Facebook make your brain bigger?

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Bait and switch.

The articles all have the title “Does Facebook make your brain bigger?” to which the answer is never explicitly stated, “awesome!”

Research finds that people with more connections on Mark Zuckerberg’s social network have bigger amygdalae than those with skimpy friend rosters.

and

Time to start making more Facebook friends?

and

the study indicates that brain areas associated with memory and emotional response are bigger for people with more connections on the 800-million-user social network.

First of all, bigger brains aren’t always awesome: autistics have bigger brains, especially in childhood.

Second, it’s not a bigger brain, it’s a bigger amygdala (and specific other regions.)   Neither is a big amydgala something to put on your wedding registry, unless you also enjoy panic attacks and cannibalism.

But the phrase “bigger brain” is a code for “better brain.” Let’s accept that for the moment. This is an association study, which means it does NOT say Facebook caused anything.  Facebook may cause things, many of them called divorce, but it is very difficult to alter the physical size of the amygdala in adulthood in a relatively short period of time with things that are not ice picks. It is more likely that the larger amygdalas which (in theory) offer a greater capacity for processing emotional interactions, also facilitate larger Facebook (and real life) social networks.

This is the crucial difference in the perspectives of the study and the articles.  The study wants it to be true (and is likely to be true) that the brain size came first, and lead to the Facebook friending.  Specifically, the study wanted to see if the size of an online social network was correlated to the same regions, and in the same way, as those involved in a real world social network.

The intention of the articles is very different: it wants it to be true that Facebook use alters brain structure, not because it cares about Facebook, but because all of these pop-sci media outlets are deeply committed to the idea of human as machine; and that technology is changing human beings, moving us towards some perfect consciousness-only species with replaceable parts.  Humans are getting better and Apple had a lot to do with it.  It is this principle that drives their noisy atheism that they pretend is scientific rigor.  (Clearly, precision and scientific literacy are totally irrelevant, as evidenced by these articles.)  The same reason they never miss a chance to remind you how awesome evolution is (while simultaneously misrepresenting it) and why you’ll find so many hack-your-brain articles in the same magazines, along with “The Key To” and “Why You” and “The Reason That”.  The reductio ad absurdum of human existence, the pretending of progress, while no actual progress is ever made.  After 6000 years, if there is anything we would have figured out “The Key To” it would be parenting, yet each generation has to relearn it from scratch.  Isn’t there an app for it? 

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25 Responses to Does Facebook make your brain bigger?

  1. qubitman says:

    Thank you for linking the articles at the beginning of your post.

    What does the author want to be true? From what I can tell TLP wants it to be true that anyone reading these articles wants a quick and easy solution to the hard problems of life. At least that’s the demographic he cares about. There are others who would read one of these articles and say “I’m inferior to people with lots of friends”. That’s my first reaction.

    From my own experience many of the things I see and hear through media are telling me I’m not experiencing the world properly. Everything I see through these channels says “you’re not like us”. What’s your reaction?

    • Or says:

      Once you’ve convinced them they’re not experiencing the world properly, aren’t you in the perfect position to sell them a quick and easy solution?

    • Guy Fox says:

      And if they have divulged the secret knowledge to you (and millions of invisible others), then you might come back for more. Enough secret knowledge is sure to nip that inferiority in the bud. That’s rather the attraction of deconstruction too, no?

      If everything you read seems to be telling you the same thing, it could be a) that all media are communicating the same message (i.e. listen to us, ’cause we have the Truth, no seriously, the REAL Truth); b) you’re selecting media that’s all saying the same thing and deselecting the rest; c) you’re reading the same message in all media, from cereal boxtops to PBS. And that’s as far as logic will carry me.

      • TheCoconutChef says:

        b)

        If you’re watching it’s for you.

        Meaning, you get what you want to get.

        Meaning, when TLP says this: “all of these pop-sci media outlets are deeply committed to the idea of human as machine; and that technology is changing human beings, moving us towards some perfect consciousness-only species with replaceable parts”, it means that, by extension, the people reading this want it to be true that facebook is changing the face of human consciousness.

        I was surpised to find that two of the article were actually in “The Week” and “TPM”. 40 years old who got on facebook a year ago and believe facebook is spreading democracy around the world?

    • privatecitizen157 says:

      Money is made by creating “needs” (aka inducing inferiority). Don’t buy it (or what they are selling).

  2. operator says:

    … if there is anything we would have figured out “The Key To” it would be parenting, yet each generation has to relearn it from scratch.

    The Key To Parenting: Pregnant by 16, childcare provided by baby’s grandmother/great-grandmother (who happens to be 32 or some other multiple of 16) – no more relearning from scratch!

    • ExOttoyuhr says:

      Absolutely! :P

      Also remember that the child grows up sharing the life of the village, socializing with other children, watching the adults at work, getting free lessons from the warriors… it’s much simpler to raise children in a tribal milieu (or even, say, a European peasant milieu) than in the nuclear families with suburban houses and lawns characteristic of the present day.

      I’ve often wondered whether, and how, the old way of life could have been preserved over the evolution of modernity. The individual and the nuclear family were the inventions of the 17thC states; was their pursuit of central control and a monopoly of violence (as opposed to feudal vassals, for example, holding their own armies and the right to use them — not as opposed to tolerating criminals, but insert robber-baron joke here) inevitable? Might some other culture — say, the Eastern Woodland American Indians or Japan — have evolved industrialization without evolving the atomization of their subjects?

      Maybe; or maybe not. Social norms that make sense with bows and clubs don’t make as much sense with tanks and aircraft carriers — or even with muskets and cannon, which were as ruinously expensive relative to medieval technology as WWII technology was relative to them. Village life might also not be very good at producing the specialized, highly-educated technicians and scientists that industrial society needs…

      • operator says:

        … nuclear families with suburban houses and lawns characteristic of the present day …

        As of 2000, 50% of Americans live in suburbs (source) – anyone’s guess as to the uncharacteristic half, eh?

        Village life might also not be very good at producing the specialized, highly-educated technicians and scientists that industrial society needs…

        … and a post-industrial society outsources :D

    • ahemsted says:

      Funny enough I was brought up by my grand mother and I liked it. Rousseau found that it should not be the parents that should educate a child (famous book called Emile), but an outside educator. A grandparent is the best of both worlds. What I find wrong with your statement is that it implys that all females above 32 are going to be the child carers and all males are out working. This is an archaic concept and I think that the role of bringing up children should be shared. In my case it was more like working until 32 and then bring up your own children after which results in the same principle, but reduces the birth rate. I just did not the right grandparent to take on the role. The question that then arises is: What do you do after 48?

      • operator says:

        What I find wrong with your statement is that it implys implies that all females above 32 are going to be the child carers and all males are out working.

        If you can track the deadbeats down they might be working.

        What do you do after 48?

        Finish raising generation#4, await generation #5′s arrival.

  3. ExOttoyuhr says:

    Thank you! Finally some real Partial Objects content again!

    The motif of “humans are/aren’t getting better/worse and this is/isn’t a reason for it” is a huge subject, and has a lot of fascinating internal tensions and contradictions. I wish this were the site for such a discussion…

  4. Hilomh says:

    Well, it does make my butt bigger…

  5. thestage says:

    Yeesh, TLP. This one is right in your wheelhouse and you went the other way.

    These outfits aren’t “deeply committed to the idea of human as machine,” they’re deeply committed to the idea of telling you what you want to hear so that you’ll click on their story. And what you want to hear is that you are awesome, and that you can always be a little bit more awesome if you keep doing the same shit you’ve been doing all day. Of course there is a deep sense of technological and material progress being at the core of human existence that these places peddle, because those things just happen to also be at the core of consumer existence, and if we are both awesome and consumers, then consumption must be awesome. But a little Occam, here.

  6. ahemsted says:

    For me quality is more important then quantity. This is a matter of personal preference. This research is somewhere biased and seems to nearly imply that people with more connections are more valuable than those with less. For fb of course they are because they can use all the data that they are getting and accelerate their growth. On a user level it may well be that confronting oneself with a larger group of people widens the horizon and therefore leads to neuron building, but so do other things like reading or connecting primarily with intelligent and creative people. The reason I use fb is that I am interested in the people I connect to and to find new inspiration. I think that fb is simply the best and most enjoyable information and communications interface around.

  7. privatecitizen157 says:

    @operator – I think ahemsted was reflecting on my comments. The indention makes things hard to follow.

    @pastabagel – Usability request: the way thelastpsychiatrist.com handles comments has spoiled me… ;)

    @ahemsted – Connecting with friends/family was why I kept my Facebook but the disregard for my privacy is why I left. I am not okay with my profile being unsearchable on Facebook proper, but “Google-able”. Try it; search your name (or your username in quotes). I am confident that you’ll be surprised at what info you (or your mother or your friends) have unwittingly made public about you…

    P.S. If your name is Andrew, I found you: http://www.facebook.com/andrew.hemsted (Good for you for having your profile mostly locked, by the way.) I also found your Flixster account, Rotten Tomatoes account, and your friend’s respective accounts. And if I google their names… (Sorry to use you as an example but I hope my point is being communicated. But in case it isn’t: spammers, stalkers, and background checkers are very interested in this information.)

    To circle back to the original post: you, ahemsted, are who the linked posts are for. It affirms that “yes, Facebook is a good thing” while subtly suggesting you add more folks to your list. BUT it’s also for folks like me and qubitman (first post): “FACEBOOK IS A GOOD THING damnit; IT GROWS YOUR BRAIN! JOIN/REJOIN and add lots of friends, mwahaha…

    /rant ;)

    • operator says:

      I think ahemsted was reflecting on my comments.

      That makes more sense.

      For anyone who is not familiar with the militarized version of Facebook:

      Human Terrain comprises the entire spectrum of society and culture. This should be the focus of the Human Terrain Analyst (HTA)’s interpretation. In non-kinetic roles, the population is the primary battlefield, and the HTA will have considerable knowledge of this aspect.

      - Human Terrain Team Handbook (@WikiLeaks)

      It gets interesting – there’s also talk of kill chains – and, with personal data of the variety Facebook solicits, the distance between militarized data mining and commercial data mining is whomever happens to be holding all that precious data.

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