Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Social Networking Increases Oxytocin

In an article in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine, Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love, by Adam Penenberg, we learn a surprising finding. . .

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has discovered, for the first time, that social networking triggers the release of the generosity-trust chemical in our brains. Here is an excerpt: "The question is simple: Will social networking increase my levels of oxytocin? Will my brain react to tweeting as it reacts to, say, a dinner conversation with good friends? I start tweeting and alert my followers that I'm engaging in a Twitter experiment with a neuroeconomist. I leave wondering whether anything of value could come of such a short, typical, and somewhat dull dip into my tweet stream.

Yet six weeks later, when Zak shares the results with me, my blood tells a more dramatic story. In those 10 minutes between blood batches one and two, my oxytocin levels spiked 13.2%. That's equivalent to the hormonal spike experienced by the groom at the wedding Zak attended. Meanwhile, stress hormones cortisol and ACTH went down 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively. Zak explains that the results are linked, that the release of oxytocin I experienced while tweeting reduced my stress hormones. If that's the case, says Zak, social networking might reduce cardiovascular risks, like heart attack and stroke, associated with lack of social support. But there's even more to our findings. "Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for," Zak says. "E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection."

Other studies support this idea. One Australian experiment discovered that people with a sizable network of friends were less likely to pass away over a 10-year period than those with a small circle of friends -- and that the distance separating friends made no difference. Another study showed that people with friends get sick less often than those without. Again, proximity didn't affect the result. Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about.

Taken with my Twitter test, all of this research reinforces the idea that we are biologically driven to commingle, and suggests that online relationships can be just as real as those conducted offline.

Cityscape Art by Mary Blair