While I am working, I find myself constantly checking my Facebook news feed. I’ve noticed that as soon as I start to feel a bit distracted, bored, or just not wanting to work, I open a new tab and visit Facebook. And thanks to neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, I now know why — because my brain is suddenly feeling a bit social.
The study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that when we have a moment of downtime, “the brain has a major system that seems predisposed to get us ready to be social in our spare moments,” said Matthew Lieberman, UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences, and one of the study’s authors.
“When I want to take a break from work, the brain network that comes on is the same network we use when we’re looking through our Facebook timeline and seeing what our friends are up to,” Lieberman, who is also an expert in social cognitive neuroscience, added. “That’s what our brain wants to do, especially when we take a break from work that requires other brain networks.”
The researchers surveyed 31 men and women between the ages of 18 and 31, all of whom were recruited from UCLA. They were each asked to view three sets of photographs, 40 in total, while the researchers recorded their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
“Most of the photos showed people performing actions in a social setting and expressing a certain emotion,” the researchers said in a press release. “In one set of 40 photographs, images were paired with captions that reflected the person’s mental state – ‘He is feeling bored’ or ‘She is expressing self-doubt,’ for example. The second set of photos had identical images, but with captions that merely described what the person was doing – ‘He is resting his head’ or ‘She is looking to her side.’ And a third set of images depicted a number accompanied by a simple mathematical equation – for example, ’10: 18-8.’”
The researchers found that the emotional part of the brain was active when viewing the first set of images, which is the same areas that are active during rest. This activity was not present when viewing the other two sets of images. Additionally, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (which is active when we dream and think of other people) was active during periods of rest, before the participants were asked to look at photos. Researchers found that participants “made significantly faster judgments if the next photo they saw presented a statement about the person’s mental state.”
“It’s the same photograph; the only thing that differs is whether the caption is mind-focused or body-focused,” said Robert Spunt, postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology and lead author of the study. “It’s remarkable.”
While the study doesn’t specifically mention social networks, Lieberman suggests that there is a connection between their findings and constant checking of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.