This is Your Brain On Social Networking

This is Your Brain On Social Networking

October 31, 2011

Virutal Love Hormones

A few weeks ago, my colleague Kristian Aloma wrote a great post called “Hug Your Customers” about this article in Fast Company.   It touched on the impact of the “love hormone,” oxytocin, on just about every human interaction.  Kristian discussed the impact of oxytocin on our relationships, including those with clients and consumers’ bonds with brands.  True, so true!!   But the Fast Company piece, which details neuroeconomist Dr. Paul J. Zak’s work, also discussed another issue that I just can’t stop thinking about.  It turns out that online social networking gives our bodies as much of a rush of oxytocin as real live social interactions.  This blows me away every time I think about it!

It’s a pretty widespread meme to criticize the explosive popularity of social networking in modern life.  This criticism usually travels the line of argument that social networking is bad, and there’s just too darned much of it because these are not REAL social exchanges or REAL friendships.  The fear is that they might be replacing the inherently better version of interaction that happens ITRW (in the real world).  In this vision of the world, we’re all sitting at our computers growing fat, unproductive and alienated, all the while deluding ourselves that we have friendships with the people we talk to online.

While much of this is a little too close for comfort, I’ve never felt that online socializing is anything like doing it in person.  At the risk of sounding like an old, old woman, I must admit that I have a decidedly ambivalent relationship with my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and have definitely muttered darkly about how my Facebook “friendships” with guys who dumped me in college, the mean girls who tormented me in high school, and people I think I might maybe have worked with twenty years ago don’t mean a thing.  I, too, have made disparaging value judgments about the inherent superiority of in-person exchanges.  Who hasn’t?

Dr. Zak Rocks My World

But now Dr. Zak’s work is making me question about half of the things I say to my teenager on any given day.

In the Fast Company article, the author, Adam Penenberg, experienced a 13.2% spike in his oxytocin levels after tweeting inanities to his followers for 10 minutes.  That increase was equivalent to the oxytocin spike experienced by one groom whose levels were tested at his own wedding.  Probably as a result of this increased oxytocin, Penenberg’s stress hormones also decreased by comparable amounts.  As Dr. Zak comments, the brain interprets tweeting, “as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for.”  This ought to make sense to me, since at Brandtrust® we’ve long touted the fact that the brain interprets memories as though it were actually reliving the moment being remembered.  That the brain also interprets virtual relationships as though it were actually experiencing real friendships would seem to be quite comparable, but I still struggle to process this new view of what’s going on in the online world.

Get Your Parents To Tweet!

Even as my head reels, the implications of this for my life are pretty clear.  First of all, I’ve got to cut my daughter a break.  Secondly, since the health, longevity and quality of life benefits of social connectedness have long been documented, I think I need to get my mother tweeting as fast as I can, though the prospect of reading what she might say terrifies me!  Finally, if “online relationships can be just as real as those conducted offline,” then I need to take a long, hard look at my quantity-over-quality list of Facebook friends.  Since it turns out these are REAL relationships after all, then I think I should only be friends with REAL friends!

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