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Stay Connected to Improve Brain Function

They say that human beings are social animals. It seems intuitive (even for introverts!) that social contact has benefits. Obviously we need other people to fulfill basic needs such making sure that our genes outlive us. Maybe less obviously, we seem to need other people to maintain adequate levels of mental well-being and motivation. Even less obviously still, social contact may help us improve our brain functions…

Mental fitness seems to depend on a large part on being connected with other people. A study published in 2008 by Ybarra and his colleagues showed that socializing and mental exercises have very similar effects in terms of improving brain functions! Ybarra hypothesized that social interaction could facilitate cognitive functioning.

First, they collected data from 3600 people aged 24 to 96. They assessed how often these people talked on the phone with friends, neighbors and relatives and how often they got together with the same parties. They also assessed mental functioning of their sample using the mini-mental exam. It was found that the more socially engaged people were, the higher their cognitive performance. Great news, right? Stay connected and your neurons will stay healthy!

One limitation of this type of study is that is shows a CORRELATION. The result shows that people who are socially engaged are also doing well in terms of brain function. This does not mean that being socially engaged results or CAUSES good brain functioning.
This correlation can be interpreted in several ways:

  1. being socially engaged results in good brain functioning
  2. Good brain functioning results in being socially engaged
  3. being wealthy (for instance) may result both in being socially engaged and good brain functioning

As a consequence, Ybarra and colleagues proceeded to conduct another study to show that social interaction indeed CAUSES better cognitive performance.
They randomly assigned participants (aged 18-21) to three groups:

  1. a social group, in which the participants engaged in a discussion of a social issue for 10mn
  2. an intellectual activities group, in which the participants solved stimulating tasks (crossword puzzles and the likes) for 10mn
  3. a control group, in which the participants watched a 10mn clip of Seinfeld

After they participated in the discussion or watched the clip or solved the puzzles, the cognitive functioning of all the participants was assessed. Two tasks were used (for those you are interested: these were a speed of processing task and a working memory task). Here is what Ybarra et al. found:

  • People in the intellectual activities group did better in the cognitive tasks than people who merely watched a movie. This shows one more time that stimulating your neurons is a great way to boost your performance
  • People who were in the social group did better in the cognitive tasks than people who merely watched a movie. This is the first time that social interaction is shown to directly CAUSE better cognitive functioning. This is a very exciting result. Remember that participants engaged in discussion for only 10m!

The benefit from social interaction was as great as the benefit from intellectual activities.

Why would social interaction boost brain function?
Ybarra and colleagues offer the following reasoning. Social interaction involves many behaviors that require memory, attention and control. These mental processes are also involved in many cognitive tasks. Thus social interaction would act as a prime, it would “oil” these processes so that they are ready to be used when a cognitive task is to be solved. This is a tentative explanation that may require some refinement but the results are here! Social interaction seems to benefit the brain.

Read the original article:

Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M. C., Manis, M., Chan, E., & Rodriguez, J. (2008). Functioning Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive. Pers Soc Psychol Bull., 34, 248.