August 30, 2013
Sex, Food And Facebook – They All Tickle Your Brain’s Pleasure Center
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Facebook often gets flak for the way it handles user information and other private data, yet the social networking site still manages to retain over a billion users. Neurologist Dar Meshi of the Free University of Berlin now believes the reason why so many continue to use the services of Facebook is because clicking “like” when viewing photos of friends and maintaining an online reputation triggers responses similar to those of sex and food in the brain’s pleasure center.Meshi and his team scanned the brain's nucleus accumbens, previously observed to process reward behavior, of 31 volunteers and measured these against questionnaires about the participant’s Facebook usage. The resulting study is now published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Previous studies have found Facebook can both improve the overall mood of its users shortly after a session or cause its users to feel even worse about their lives.
“As human beings, we evolved to care about our reputation. In today’s world, one way we’re able to manage our reputation is by using social media websites like Facebook,” explains Meshi, lead author of the paper.
“You post something and then you wait for a positive social feedback in the form of likes and comment, and if you get likes, it demonstrates that people think highly of you, which is equivalent to reputation," he told the LA Times.
Before participating in Meshi’s study, volunteers were first asked to rank their usage on the Facebook Intensity Scale. This questionnaire asks how much time individuals spend on Facebook, how many friends they have on the site, and their general thoughts and opinions about site. The research team took care to choose participants with varied levels of Facebook activity before moving forward.
Next, the 31 volunteers were hooked up to a functional neuroimaging (fMRI) unit and participated in a video interview wherein they saw pictures of themselves with words other people used to describe them. They also saw pictures of other participants in the study and their own set of descriptive words. In the final stage of the experiment, the subjects were able to win money during a quick card game.
After measuring the level of activity in the nucleus accumbens during these tests, Meshi found those who used Facebook more intensely were also more likely to respond positively to being complimented during the video interview portion of the test.
“The brain activity corresponds with the Facebook use only when you compare their individual gains due to their own feedback, minus the feedback they observed for other people,” said Meshi. By knowing how active a person’s accumbens becomes when they’re paid a compliment, Meshi believes one could also predict how intensely they use Facebook. While this study did attempt to find a link between the brain’s pleasure center and using Facebook to manage one’s reputation, it did not observe the subject’s accumbens while they were actually using the site.
Furthermore, Meshi says they weren’t focused on understanding Facebook’s effect on the brain so much as they wanted to understand how the brain reacts in situations where one’s reputation is important.
“We didn’t have to choose Facebook; we could have chosen donations to charity or polite behavior to strangers, some type of human behavior where we take our reputation into consideration.”