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.


  1. Carol on May 18, 2008 at 2:21

    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 on September 20, 2008 at 11:15

    Very nice, straight up and engag­ing writing.

    Thanks for that.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?