Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Social Connections for Cognitive Fitness

We 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. Maybe less obvi­ous­ly we seem to need oth­er peo­ple to main­tain pic_pascalepost.jpgade­quate lev­els of men­tal well being and moti­va­tion.

Even less obvi­ous­ly, social con­tact may help us improve our brain func­tions…

Men­tal fit­ness seems to depend on a large part on being con­nect­ed with oth­er peo­ple. For instance peo­ple with low social sup­port seem to be more prone to men­tal ill­ness (McGuire & Raleigh, 1986). In 2007, Glad­stone and col­leagues stud­ied 218 patients with major depres­sion and found out that low social sup­port, espe­cial­ly com­ing from the fam­i­ly, was asso­ci­at­ed with chron­ic depres­sion.

Mere­ly imag­in­ing lone­li­ness can neg­a­tive­ly affect our behav­ior…

Baumeis­ter et al. (2005) showed that com­pared to peo­ple who were not told any­thing, peo­ple who were told that they would like­ly end up alone in life:

- were less able to make them­selves con­sume a healthy but bad-tast­ing bev­er­age
— quit faster in try­ing to solve hard and frus­trat­ing puz­zles.
Telling peo­ple that their future would be marred by a ten­den­cy to be acci­dent prone (injuries and the like) did not affect their behav­ior. This shows how much social con­tact is cru­cial for human beings!

A new study, pub­lished in 2008 by Ybar­ra and his col­leagues went even fur­ther by show­ing that social­iz­ing and men­tal exer­cis­es have very sim­i­lar effects in terms of improv­ing brain func­tions!

Down­load paper: Men­tal Exer­cis­ing Through Sim­ple Social­iz­ing: Social Inter­ac­tion Pro­motes Gen­er­al Cog­ni­tive Func­tion­ing (PDF)

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.

Even after con­trol­ling for phys­i­cal health and dai­ly activ­i­ty lev­els, they found that the more social­ly engaged peo­ple were, the high­er their cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.

Great news, right? Stay con­nect­ed and your neu­rons will stay healthy!

The lim­i­ta­tions of this type of study are numer­ous though. Most of all the result is a CORRELATION. That is, 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:
a) being social­ly engaged results in good brain func­tion­ing
b) good brain func­tion­ing results in being social­ly engaged
c) being wealthy (for instance) may result both in being social­ly engaged and good brain func­tion­ing

For­tu­nate­ly, Ybar­ra and col­leagues were quite aware of the lim­i­ta­tions of cor­re­la­tions. They 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:
— a social group, in which the par­tic­i­pants engaged in a dis­cus­sion of a social issue for 10mn
— an intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ties group, in which the par­tic­i­pants solved stim­u­lat­ing tasks (cross­word puz­zles and the likes) for 10mn
— 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 (see the graph) pic_pascalepost.jpg

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.
What we would like to know next would be whether these types of effects are addi­tion­al!

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. Let’s talk then! And lim­it TV time…


Pascale Michelon— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., for Copy­right 2008. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­o­gy Depart­ment. She con­duct­ed sev­er­al research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visu­al infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ul­ty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and teach­es Mem­o­ry Work­shops in numer­ous retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties in the St Louis area.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

3 Responses

  1. Carol says:

    This study fas­ci­nates me. The pow­er­ful effects of neg­a­tive words should sober par­ents who rarely praise their chil­dren. Being told “you are stu­pid” and believ­ing it can be self-ful­fill­ing, just like being told “you will be alone when you are old” and believ­ing it can be self-ful­fill­ing. Here is anoth­er thought—will there be research some day that actu­al­ly mea­sures how much cog­ni­tive impair­ment is the result of watch­ing tele­vi­sion?

  2. Gregory Kellett says:

    Very nice, straight up and engag­ing writ­ing.

    Thanks for that.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)