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Five Social Media Quirks that Could Tell Neuroscientists More About Our Brains

Neuroscientists could find new insights on the brain if they analysed five key social media behaviors.
The five key social media behaviors. Image: Meshi, Tamir, and Heekeren/Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2015

There are almost two billion people using social media worldwide, generating a whopping one billion Facebook posts, and 400 million Tweets in just one single day. So what could be done with all that data?

According to researchers, some of it could be used to glean more insights into how our brains process, and are ultimately shaped by the social media noise that we produce and consume.

Scientists who research "how social information is passed and processed around the brain" could take advantage of social media data for study, said Dar Meshi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Freie University in Berlin, Germany.


Meshi and a band of other cognitive neuroscientists from Freie University in Berlin published a review paper Wednesday in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, which essentially promotes the analysis of data generated through people's interaction with social media among neuroscientists.

Meish explained that neuroscientists could find new insights on the brain if they analysed five key social media behaviors that included how users broadcast information about themselves; how they react to comments made by others; how they themselves give feedback; how users observe what others do; and how people compared the ways they interacted with social media with other users.

"We're trying to answer questions on not just how the brain functions, but how people behave in social situations," Meshi said. "We want to come up with models that explain how the brain is passing around information."

In online settings, for example, people were 80 percent more likely to make statements referring to themselves, compared to only 30 percent in the offline world.

"Neuroscientists can capitalize on these natural variations in online environments by collecting behavioral data and relating them to brain structure or function to ask new questions about the roots of our social brain and how it adapts to new environments," they write.

The study of how our brains process social media is a relatively new field of research, Meshi said. In their review, the researchers write that over 10,000 articles published in journals since 1997 have used the term "social media" but only a few of these came from the neuroscience field.

Meshi, who published a study that looked at what happened to an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens when people's reputations were bolstered on Facebook back in 2013, wants to fill that gap, while being cognizant of data privacy issues.

Next up, he wants to find out how social media affects the brain.

"Maybe social media changes the brain in a way that will affect our future cognition and interaction in a certain way," said Meshi. "We don't know what types of changes are occurring in the brain that are important yet."