Do you have a brain for social networks?
December 26th, 2010
01:01 PM ET

Do you have a brain for social networks?

All the people you interact with on a daily basis may be influencing a structure in your brain - or maybe your brain is influencing how many people you socialize with, new research suggests.

It all comes back to the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure found in the temporal lobe of both hemispheres of the brain. It is connected to almost every other brain region, and participates in many different kinds of social and psychological phenomena including the "flight or fight" response. The amygdala plays a part in fear, emotion, vision, memory, and social interaction, among other things.

A new study in the journal Nature Neuroscience finds that the amygdala appears to be larger in people who have larger and more complex social networks.

Researchers asked 58 participants, who ranged in age from 19 to 83, about the number of people they interact with regularly per week and what roles those people play in their lives. They had "complex" social networks if their close contacts had multiple roles in their lives - for instance, if friends were also co-workers, for example.

Study authors then looked at the volume of the amygdala, controlling for the size of the overall brain, in each participant. The relative size of the amygdala was not associated with perceived social support, satisfaction with social interactions, or how much participants enjoy interacting with people in general. It did, however, correlate well with the size and complexity of individuals'  social networks.

The association between amygdala size and social network size and complexity appeared fairly consistent among men and women, and among old and young participants.

Because the study does not show causation, it is impossible to know whether the amygdala actually grows in size because of social interaction, or if people with larger amygdalae gravitate toward larger groups of friends, or both. This study cannot make conclusions about that topic, but it is the subject of ongoing research.

Lead study author Lisa Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and associate neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, does not believe that people born with larger amygdalas are destined to have broader social networks.

"You're never destined for anything. Your brain gives you the potential for things, it doesn’t dictate that those things will materialize," Barrett said.

Still, looking across different species of animals, those who live in larger social groups also have larger amygdalas, even when you control for body and brain size, she said.

"It does seem like the amygdala to some extent evolved in size under the pressure for more complex social interactions," she said.

But keep in mind that the brain is plastic, and it's possible that the amygdala does increase in size in response to social activity.

There may be a link between how big your amygdala is and how many friends you have on a social networking website like Facebook, but there has not been a complete study on this topic, Barrett said.

Having a large social network is not necessarily advantageous all the time, Barrett said. In some cases, interacting with more people could also create more opportunities for stress, she said.

soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. Elle

    That's interesting! i wonder if the size of the amygdala is ever affected by having a childhood with little social interaction. i find socializing difficult&was raised by a depressed, friendless mother. today i live in a boarding house filled with people and this has helped me socially (with other women, at least), so possibly this part of the brain retains the ability to acclimate to sudden social changes, even in midlife?

    December 26, 2010 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Diane

      What is this? Like the movie we had to pay for and sit through wasn't enough of a gigantic commercial? Barnum was right!

      December 27, 2010 at 12:04 | Report abuse |
    • Melle

      Who wrote this, someone from the Jersey Shore show? This is not only a pointless article but its actually untrue. Its a well known fact in society that people who spend MORE time on these sites are NOT good with people in person.

      December 27, 2010 at 14:35 | Report abuse |
    • EllesBelles

      I have to agree with Melle. And I quote: "But keep in mind that the brain is plastic, and it's possible that the amygdala does increase in size in response to social activity." ExCUSE me? The brain is WHAT? Maybe on the Jersey Shore it is, but where I live, the brain is organic matter.

      December 27, 2010 at 14:57 | Report abuse |
    • danR

      FB addicts must have amygdalas almost as huge as a lemming's.

      December 27, 2010 at 15:27 | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      EllesBelles – Although this article is trite and silly, you show your ignorance when mocking the use of the word 'plastic' in relation to the brain's ability to adapt. It is a perfectly valid use of the word. The word plastic means 'pliable' or 'formative' hence why it was adopted to be used to describe the man-made polymers we commonly call 'plastic'.

      December 27, 2010 at 15:52 | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy

      The authors of this article write as if they know everything. The results of the study prove nothing, and we still don't know very much about the brain. Especially how the brain reacts to social encounters. I'm about to graduate this spring with a psychology degreee, we know very little about the brain. This whole article is BS and isn't proven, but they write it as if it is.

      December 27, 2010 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
    • Ian Anderson

      Diane –
      who forced you to pay for and sit through a movie? Your life sounds horrible!
      I assume you're not talking about the Social Network, which is some of the best, tight writing and direction of the year. You seem smarter than that.

      December 27, 2010 at 17:30 | Report abuse |
    • juan

      testing...testing...testing...hmm my amygdala = unsocial. ;(

      December 30, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse |
  2. anne

    This is interesting to read but makes me wonder about myself i grew up in large groups though i was picked on in school i was always the first person new students became friends with. and even today i have 3 diferent web pages that i have friends on and talk to one page has 986 friends one has 567 friends and the third has 256 friends. and my friends always come to me when they need someone to talk to i am greatly liked by many and well respected and never give bad advice.and i make new friends everyday i have been told i am a well liked person so i am wondering how i would beable to tell just what the size of my amygdala is i have always been a social person and interact with many types of people.

    December 26, 2010 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wondering..

      I would wonder how 'pretty' you are by society's standards. People who are inherently pretty or good looking tend to attract others as friends and confidants more easily, thereby increasing YOUR self-confidence and charisma, which would attract even MORE people to you. Not saying this is good or bad, but it's just how the world works. Ironically, I'd tend to focus as much on studying the looks of the people in that group as the size of their 'glands.'

      December 27, 2010 at 09:50 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      Can't tell about your amigdala, but your ego seems pretty large. BTW, wakeup call!, facebooks friends are not really friends. Some are not even real persons.

      December 27, 2010 at 10:15 | Report abuse |
    • HardToRead

      A little capitalization and punctuation would help the readability of your postings greatly, as would a pruning of your overgrown ego.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:11 | Report abuse |
    • rufus

      Anne, after reading your post, I decided to "de-friend" you. I can see your amygdala shrinking.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:37 | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      Don't worry about the comments anne, there are a lot of small minded people on these forums, they are just upset that they don't have any friends.

      December 27, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse |
    • JMcTigue

      Although having friends is quite healthy, having such a large number of friends tends to decrease the amount of loyalty involved in your friend relationships and the value placed upon them, and suggests a phobia to commit to a one to one relationship, as well being interpreted in that the many distant online relationships will compensate for the lack of a close personal relationship. I suggest easing off on your online relationships a bit and try to foster a real life (friend) relationship built on solid values and real names (trust). In doing so, you may find you are not only helping yourself, but helping those efriends in the same situation on your web pages.

      Just a thought...

      December 27, 2010 at 12:19 | Report abuse |
    • Sue

      Why the venom? Such a need to strike out speaks of a more deeply instilled need to stroke ones ego than the original poster. While it was an awkward post, at least she wasn't trying to belittle another to make herself feel better. When will human beings realize that belittlement of others does not make one appear better or more enlightened except to the basest of our species? Sadly, they often troll the news comment boards for a free venue to vent vain frustrations.

      December 27, 2010 at 12:36 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      @Sue, You are correct. BTW, if I am not mistaken, you are belittling those who sadly often troll the news comment boards for a free venue to vent vain frustrations...

      December 27, 2010 at 12:53 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      @Brad, you got it man! YOu must to have lots of FB friends. Congrats! I bet people confused you with Brad Pitt....

      December 27, 2010 at 13:10 | Report abuse |
    • Sue

      @justsome guy - Yep - I saw the irony in that one when I posted that as well. Guilty as charged when it comes getting protective when someone is unnecessarily attacked. In other words, it is a crime of defense rather than offense... That said, he who draws first blood can't change the rules after drawing it - equal opportunity for defense is warranted.

      December 27, 2010 at 13:19 | Report abuse |
    • Denizen Kate

      Anne, you're one of the people who keep me off Facebook and other "social network" web sites (for which I thank you). Your own words indicate that you need the validation of hundreds in order to feel that your life has value. There is an old saying: "Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies." I wonder how many of those 1,809 "friends" of which you boast would be there for you in a crisis?

      Also, you could benefit from less time online and more time learning proper grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Your posting was nearly illiterate.

      December 27, 2010 at 14:35 | Report abuse |
    • RealFriendsOnlyPlease

      I see somebody else is playing the "Collecting Facebook Friends" game. The only rule is, the one who ends up with the most friends on Facebook is actually the biggest loser.

      December 27, 2010 at 15:05 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      @Sue, there is no difference when you are defiending by offending. The rules were not changed. The remark makes reference to the fact you were complaining about the game but were in fact playing by the same rules. Yes, indeed. Very ironic.

      December 27, 2010 at 15:20 | Report abuse |
    • ric

      I have over 3000 facebook friends and do not consider them friends nor do I consider it "socialiizing"..I consider it networking to promote my artwork..

      December 27, 2010 at 16:49 | Report abuse |
  3. Dr Bill Toth

    The brain is a magnificent plastic structure...apparently growing and changing in response to input. Input which is then perceived, and interpreted. So whether a "large" social network is a "benefit" or a "stress" would depend entirely upon the person and their perception in the moment. To paraphrase Shakespeare; "Nothing is either good nor bad, except that we make it so". Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    December 27, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • eric gieseke

      well said dr Bill,

      December 27, 2010 at 10:35 | Report abuse |
    • Heather

      Great, an advertisement for yet another Dr. Phil with an angle for making money. Take it somewhere else.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:43 | Report abuse |
    • Dr. OF LIFE

      Soooooo if I kill a person in cold blood, its not a bad thing because I perceived as a good thing and had good reason? Right. Morality is NOT relative. Idiocy like this is why the world is a craphole.

      December 27, 2010 at 14:38 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      @Dr. of Life, Morality is in fact relative to your culture.

      December 27, 2010 at 15:48 | Report abuse |
    • Pamwich

      @ justsomeguy: OK. So, in my culture I can shoot your child in the face and its accepted. So, dont call the cops on me ok?


      December 27, 2010 at 18:33 | Report abuse |
  4. sbulcroft

    The Amygdala size has been shown to change with certain practices for instance it has been shown to shrink with mindfulness practices over a 6 month or more period. Having a larger Amygdala has also been shown to increase the fear response (fight, flight or freeze) and having no amygdala takes away all fear. So, this finding that people with larger social networks have larger amygdala's may be good or it may be bad. My take is with larger amygdala's one is more prone to more activation of the fear response. Perhaps, it is the size of the networks that instill more fear due to more opportunities to being socially hurt and the fear of rejection. Maybe these people with these large networks are really quite insecure and need people around them to cope with their fears? Interesting study but very inconclusive as to meaning and purpose.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Melissa

    fairly pointless article without the statistical analysis numbers for the study

    December 27, 2010 at 10:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. A

    ... In some cases, interacting with more people could also create more opportunities for stress...

    Very True indeed!

    December 27, 2010 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dave

    As I spend more time meditating and contemplation, the less I feel the need to socialize. Also my level of fear experience is almost down to zero. This is from someone who formerly had a very social life. I just do not see the need to be bothered by so many people and their overly emotional issues. Since I do not share such a high level of emotions, I no longer fit in with people who ride that roller-coaster of ups and downs.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Denizen Kate

      What about balance, Dave? I enjoy the emotional roller coaster that comes with social interaction. Among other things, it provides me with material for my quiet contemplative time, of which I also have an abundance and thoroughly enjoy. The emotional downswings and resulting meditations allow me to more fully appreciate the upswings, and I enjoy contemplating the goods times, too. Could you be cutting yourself off from social interactions that would bring you warmth and joy in your meditations? It's just a thought.

      December 27, 2010 at 14:48 | Report abuse |
  8. The Jackdaw

    Apparently I'm not exactly human because I deleted my Facebook account and have no interest in social networking.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • FauxNews

      No, that simply means you have a life.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:23 | Report abuse |
    • Bobolink

      Congratulations! You are free!

      December 27, 2010 at 12:16 | Report abuse |
    • beezus

      Facebook free for 2 years!

      December 27, 2010 at 13:06 | Report abuse |
  9. Lila

    Social networking is not face to face socializing. There's much more pressure when someone is in front of you vs updating at ones convenience. So it's hard to imagine there is a great effect on the amygdala.

    December 27, 2010 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dana

      I agree. This is a total crock. Many young people my age who are on all of these networking sites actually have the communication and reasoning ability of a retarded slug. This is absolutely not true. I think it is actually stifling people's abilities to speak to one another. Face to face, using eye contact and having real personal interest in the other person is a DYING trait, its not improved by Facebook. Get a GRIP!

      December 27, 2010 at 14:30 | Report abuse |
    • ric

      Dana I could agree with your more..My sister had a party for a nephew in his twenties and he invited his facebook friends, most of which he really didn't know too well.They spent most of their time texting and drinking...The girls seperated from the boys and had a conversation about dating with my sister..They were so impressed by the fact that she actually "dated" her husband for years before she got married, and the biggest complaint by the females was that they felt like technology has actually has hindered them in finding good relationships because everyone lies on their profile page, While the men liked the net because they could look at half naked women competing for attention without having to leave their home. The only time people actually got together at the party was to take pictures and immediatley post on facebook..

      December 27, 2010 at 16:59 | Report abuse |
  10. Nick

    I was raised by a shy, friendless mom, and have been fighting my shyness for a decade now.
    It seems like the way you are raised is everything..

    December 27, 2010 at 11:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Cinnamon Cocoa

    The fonts on these articles are too small for me to read!!

    December 27, 2010 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • X2

      Get your eyes fixed or get a real monitor.

      December 27, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse |
    • hawaiikaos

      You can adjust the font size in your browser settings.

      December 27, 2010 at 12:33 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      Your amigdala is too large...

      December 27, 2010 at 12:57 | Report abuse |
  12. rainey

    I am what I am and the rest is up to me and whoever is in charge of us all.Inconceivable!

    December 27, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. drmx123

    I'm an independent person and don't need a big "social network" to constantly prop up my ego. So I must have a minisule amygdala.

    December 27, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. DonA

    Never mind the size of specific brain areas. What's the group in this photo drinking or smoking? Looks like some good stuff!

    December 27, 2010 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • justsome guy

      LOL! best posting under this article. It put me to think that when I drink my amygdala must be getting short-circuited.

      December 27, 2010 at 13:01 | Report abuse |
  15. ZombiesRus

    Several comments:
    Who cares about the SIZE of the amygdala ? The size of it hasn't proven to be good, bad, or ugly with regard to anything.

    Facebook and social networks. Its been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that people who put all this crap out there on Facebook are narcissistic, or have those tendencies. Its a total waste of time, and nothing but a vehicle for advertisers to induce people to consume more, which is a major cause of all the debt and spending problems we have in America today.

    The people I have met in person that are on Facebook, are rather shallow, and insecure frankly. If they feel they need a social network or that Facebook "proves" they have lots of "friends" and that means they are somehow "better" people for it, then more power to them. Facebook certainly is no indicator of success in life, or a healthful mindset.

    December 27, 2010 at 12:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Facebook is for LOSERS

      I concur. I joined for half a second and realized it was filling with narcissistic lunatics. I also find it quite amusing how many people post cut & pasted chicken crap for the soul sayings as if that makes them appear wise. They are far from it.

      December 27, 2010 at 14:32 | Report abuse |
  16. Tim

    On demand storage growth. I wonder if it can be projected out?

    December 27, 2010 at 12:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. El Kababa

    I've always found the presence other people to be annoying. At parties I count the seconds until I can leave and go do something interesting. I suppose I suffer from a small amygdala. However, if I could take a pill and fix myself I would not. It sounds like a terribly boring life to me to be forever in a group of people, seeking approval.

    December 27, 2010 at 12:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Denizen Kate

      Why bother going to parties in the first place?

      December 27, 2010 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
    • ric

      Friendship is not about seeking approval, its about sharing things in common.

      December 27, 2010 at 17:02 | Report abuse |
  18. justsome guy

    It's not the size that matters. It's how you use it that's important!

    December 27, 2010 at 13:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. MM

    Just exactly how large is the writers amygdala? I cant imagine it being larger than a speck of dust!

    December 27, 2010 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. MM

    People who are on social networks are nothing but a bunch of idlers who need to get a life. These people are lacking some serious social skills and are about to bring the human race down to nothing more than a grunting species because they lack the skills required to carry on a sensible conversation.

    December 27, 2010 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. TYPO

    I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT MY BRAIN IS *NOT* MADE OF PLASTIC. HELLO MCFLY!! 'But keep in mind that the brain is plastic, and it's possible that the amygdala does increase in size in response to social activity.' M

    December 27, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Reed

    This has GOT to be the most idiotic and pointless article I have read yet.

    December 27, 2010 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Denizen Kate

    Most of the postings here seem to think this article was about social network web sites. What has happened to reading comprehension in our country? Please, read it again. For those without that ability (far too many by my count), just look at the pretty picture at the top of the page. Does it show someone sitting in front of a computer screen? No. It shows a group of people in tropical clothing drinking colorful liquids, smiling, and enjoying live music together.

    December 27, 2010 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • justsome guy

      Geeezz! You wanted to join the discussion so badly that you forgot to read the last few sentences... Allow me to paste them below for you... "There may be a link between how big your amygdala is and how many friends you have on a social networking website like Facebook,..." As you can *read*, it also makes reference to a social network site.... Oh I get it. The pretty picture explains it. So you are using the pretty picture to support your argument that the article has nothing to do with social network websites.... I get it. Interesting logic.

      December 27, 2010 at 15:37 | Report abuse |
    • @justsomeguy

      Finish the sentence you were referring to. "...a complete study has not been done yet." Pot, meet kettle.

      December 27, 2010 at 16:29 | Report abuse |
    • justsome guy

      @@justsome juy, ??? did you see the ellipsis? Look it up.

      December 27, 2010 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
    • Greek Goddess

      Notice how they always pair the mixed girl with the black guy? I am a white girl but I always notice in these blogs and commercials even they never show a full black woman. They are ALWAYS mixed.

      December 27, 2010 at 18:35 | Report abuse |
  24. Rick

    I wonder if they compared their results... to the participants INCOME... or DRINKING habits.. or how big their penis was .. or how big their boobs were.

    Trouble with some of these BS study results... they DON"T account for common variables that can influence their phucking results.

    In other words, they READ what they WANT to read into them.

    December 27, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • justsome guy

      Others don't even read. They just look at the pretty pictures. 🙂

      December 27, 2010 at 15:50 | Report abuse |
    • G P

      That is why they demand an extremely unlikely relationship to show there could possibly be a connection. For social science studies the common rule is there needs to be a relationship that is 19x more common than what would occur by random chance. For medical studies it can be as high as 999x more common than what would occur by chance. I suspect the standard for this one is 99x more likely than what would occur by chance.

      December 27, 2010 at 16:50 | Report abuse |
    • G P

      Furthermore, your critique assumes they claim to prove a relationship while not being careful about making assumptions. They specifically state that they can't prove any causality. You are critiquing them for a specificity that you are reading into the study, which isn't there, and a failure to qualify their results, which they actually do. The study may be flawed in other ways but your critique is not valid.

      December 27, 2010 at 16:56 | Report abuse |
  25. Joshua Ludd

    An even better question is whether the crime rates, rates of depression and mental illness, multiple office and school shootings, etc... are caused in part because our brains are not meant to function in societies like ours.

    December 27, 2010 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. G P

    Lots of people demonstrating in the comments that they have very little understanding of the scientific concepts behind this study.

    December 27, 2010 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Brainz

    Interesting. A plus in biz networking. Only thing is if the brain can discern a phony,
    kiss up when your biz is doing well, vs. when your biz is sinking. After the rats have left the sinking ship-there you are! Holding your giant amygdala(s) in your
    hand with no one to massage the baby.

    December 27, 2010 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. tony

    I wonder if they did a comparison based on whether the subjects included thinking of their particular "god", if any, as a social contact?

    December 27, 2010 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Ben Alcobra

    Well, there it is: if you don't like social networks, something's wrong with your brain. Your amygdala is too small. It can't handle the complexity. But don't worry, if you just give social networks a try and practice a great deal, your amygdala could grow to the proper size and enable you to handle the complexity that normal people with big amygdalas can handle. Poor you if you have a small amygdala and do nothing about it!

    December 27, 2010 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. kim

    This is what troubles me most... Enlarged Amygdala's are associated with Autism, Bipolar disorder and other significant brain problems. I could care less how it relates to networking at this point. I want to know why the internet is creating brain problems and noone is accountable. where's the contact page for internet customer support? how about an internet Dr.'s office to treat those who are being made retarded by it's use?

    December 28, 2010 at 18:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Amanda

    @Kim ... I have Bipolar and I've been networking for 5 years now, it saved my life and increased my knowledge 10 fold how to keep my Bipolar under control. Problem with people with Bipolar they have so many creative thoughts it's like running a marathon at the end of the day and if those with Bipolar don't know how to express it over and over that's what can cause Suicide and Murder/Suicide .. The internet does not cause brain damage, not being educated and continuing to educate yourself does cause permanent brain damage .... Great Read!

    February 9, 2011 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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