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Facebook and Your Brain

The inside dope on Facebook

Facebook addict

You don't need a psychiatrist to tell you that the world has gone crazy over Facebook. The incredible hype over this month’s public offering showed us that as did the over 900 million people using Facebook at least monthly. Here’s a quick look at some brain chemistry to help explain why.

Some say that inside information is the fuel that drives Wall Street. Well, the inside dope on Facebook is dopamine, an organic chemical released in the brain and associated with pleasurable feelings.

When we view an attractive face, dopamine is released in the same reward pathway that is stimulated when we eat delicious food, make money, have sex, or use cocaine. We all post our best photos on Facebook and carefully select our profile picture to welcome friends to our page. Users can click on and feel the rush anytime they want.

Of course, sad stories or trying moments are shared too, but the goal there is to get viewers to secrete oxytocin, the “love hormone,” and elicit their help. Feeling supported during times of crisis helps mitigate the pain caused by the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people.

Oxytocin at work

Since 2004, over 125 billion friendship connections have been created on Facebook. With two billion “likes” a day and one billion comments, Facebook stimulates the release of loads of dopamine as well as offering an effective cure to loneliness.

Novelty also triggers these “feel good” chemicals. Facebook cornered the market on these chemical responses with 300 million new posts every day. And as if that weren’t enough, they added games, and now the 100 million users can release dopamine every time they play. Don’t forget the invitation feature promising us more dopamine and oxytocin as we anticipate good times with our friends.

Digging deeper into the mechanism, we find mirror neurons in the brain that are triggered when we see someone expressing emotions or engaging in activity. These neurons are responsible for feelings of empathy as well as for imitative learning. When you see smiling faces, your mirror neurons will have you smiling without even knowing why. Emotions are contagious, and Facebook is a hotbed of positive emotions beckoning us to return for more. So, we do.

Dopamine and oxytocin are powerful stuff, and no one besides Facebook has figured out how to offer shares of them to the public quite so effectively.

More from Eva Ritvo M.D.
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