Study: Social Media Fires Up Brain's Pleasure Center

Harvard Study Sheds Light on Popularity of Social Media

Man sitting in front of wall with social media phrases
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Research suggesting that sharing information about ourselves fires up the pleasure centers of our brains may shed light on the roots of social media addiction.

The research was conducted at Harvard University in 2011 and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, led by Diana Tamir, explains a series of five experiments the team conducted to test their hypothesis, which was that people derive intrinsic value from communicating information about themselves to other people.

"Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area," the Harvard-based study states. "Moreover, individuals were willing to forgo money to disclose about the self. "

Let's Talk About Me, Me, Me

Previous studies have found that 30 percent to 40 percent of daily conversations communicate information to other people about our own experiences, the study said. Previous research has found an even greater percentage of what we post on social media (up to 80 percent) is about ourselves. The Harvard researchers set out to see if that may be because we get some emotional or psychic rewards for doing so.

In their experiments, the researchers hooked up MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines to scan people's brains while they were given the choice of talking about themselves and listening to other people to judge their thoughts.

Essentially, they found that people prefer to share information about themselves so much that they were willing to forego money to do so.

More significantly, perhaps, they also found that the act of self-disclosure lights up areas of the brain which are also activated by known pleasurable activities such as eating and sex. When people listening to or judging other people, their brains didn't light up the same way. Curiously, the researchers also found the activation of pleasure centers was even greater when people were told they had an audience.

Lots of researchers have previously theorized that using social media might release pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, the same chemical released in the brains of alcoholics when they drink and nicotine addicts when they smoke.

But this is one of the first studies to try to document the effects of self-disclosure on brain chemistry, especially when one has an audience for the sharing.

Fine-Tuning Our Social Instincts

In their conclusion, the authors say this drive to broadcast ourselves to others may give us various adaptive advantages and enhance our performance in "behaviors that underlie the extreme sociality of our species."

For example, using social media could reward us by doing something simple such as helping forge "social bonds and social alliances between people" or "eliciting feedback from others to attain self-knowledge."

If this study is correct, the pleasure we derive from sharing tidbits of our lives on social networks may help explain the phenomenon of Facebook addiction," which basically is just spending so much time on Facebook that it interferes with the rest of our lives. The symptoms of Facebook addiction are similar to the signs of overuse of other forms of social media, such as Twitter, Tumblr and the like.