Neuroscience: What Your Brain Literally Thinks about Social Media #thebasics

First and foremost, I would like to slap a disclaimer across this blog post by making clear I am not a scientist nor a doctor; however, I have always had an interest in science. Anyway, I have always be fascinated by how the body works, which is what promoted my curiosity in the neuroscience behind social media.

As I was doing research for this blog post, I found the details of this topic to be  extremely advanced, complex, and honestly a bit over my head.  However, I found it fascinating; therefore, I decided to attempt to provide y’all with an outline that highlights the basics of the neuroscience behind social media in a simple yet accurate manner, both by presenting the science behind social media, but also including an “english” translation.

I mean we all aware/are part of the social media craze, but why? How do the psychological and neurological factors of our brain feed/respond to this social media craze? Well, those are both deeply intriguing and deeply complex questions, but here we go…

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Why our Brain Responds to Social Media #thebasics

Okay, so we all have a brain, and we all love our noggin. Now the question becomes why does our noggin love social media? Scientists believe that social media has become so popular for two main motives…

1. “to connect with others”

2. “To manage the impression they make on others “

Those are no small motives. In fact, they define to major aspects of what it means to be human. They are both innate parts of our human nature. “People are driven to connect with others and manage their reputation, and likely derive significant adaptive advantages from doing so. Indeed, finding ways to fulfill our need to belong to a social group may be as important to our survival as fulfilling our basic biological needs, such as obtaining food and sex”.


So makes sense right? Of course we want to use social media because it both fulfills and enhances two major aspects of what it means to be human. Now, what is the science behind these two motives? There are crucial psychological, nuerlogical, developmental, and cognitive facts that play imperative roles in the neuroscience behind social media. Let’s break it down…

How our Brain Responds to Social Media #thebasics

Trends in Cognitive Science: 5 Key Social Behaviors

Scientists state that social media fulfills 5 key social behaviors which stimulate the brain.

  1. users broadcasted information
  2. users receive feedback on broadcasted information
  3. users observe information broadcasted by others
  4. users provided feedback on others posts
  5. users engage in social comparison, by contrasting their own broadcasts and feedback to others


Social media provides a platform for people to satisfy these fundamental social drives.

  1. By creating content and profile on Facebook, posting pics on insta, snapping pics, ect…
  2. likes, retweets, playbacks, views, comments, shares on any of the content created above, ect…
  3. “social stalking” our friends/not friends/celebs/brands/institutions across all social media platforms
  4. Us liking, retweeting, playing back, viewing, commenting, sharing, the content of others
  5.  Comparing everything mentioned above to someone else as a “standard” of evaluations, likes, tweets, profile, pics, ect…

As seen above, social media directly targets, stimulates, and drives these five fundamental key behaviors by allowing people to “groom” their reputation and that of others.

Trends in Cognitive Science: 3 Neurological Domains

Social media provides a platform where the modern human can attempt to satisfy basic social needs via five key behaviors. These behaviors rely primarily on three domains: social cognition , self-referential cognition, and social reward processing


Since I believe not all of us are wonderfully fluent in neuroscience/neurological vocabulary, I have provided an “English” translation to the science below

1.Social Cognition


 Using social media requires us to think about the mental states and motivations of other users: For example, before and after a social media user broadcasts information, he/she may think about how his/her audience will respond. When providing feedback on another user’s posts, a user may think about how this specific user may react upon receiving this feedback. Lastly, when viewing information and feedback broadcast by others, a user may think about the other user’s motivations for posting this information


“Neuroimaging studies of offline social behaviors have demonstrated that thinking about others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions reliably recruits a network of brain regions, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), bilateral temporoparietal junction (TPJ), anterior tem- poral lobes (ATL), inferior frontal gyri (IFG), and posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC) . Recent studies have directly linked activity in these regions to sharing information  and receiving other’s shared information. These regions, implicated in offline information sharing and receipt, as well as in mentalizing more broadly, likely also help us to process the social thoughts and behaviors elicited by social media”.


2. Self-Referentual Cognition


People use social media to post information about who they are: they share their own current subjective experience, recent past, or opinions, thoughts, dreams, concerns, motivates, ect… As such, social media use involves a great deal of self-referential thought: “thinking about oneself may prompt a user to broadcast those thoughts, and broadcasting one’s thoughts may provoke further self-referential thought”. Receiv- ing feedback may induce reflected self-appraisals, and social comparison likewise requires users to think about their own behavior in relation to other users.


“Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that self-referential thought involves a network of midline cortical regions, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and PCC . Recent studies have also linked activity in the MPFC to the self-referential component of sharing information about the self (i.e., self-disclosure). Online social media use that involves self-referential thought should likewise recruit this network of brain regions involved in thinking about the self”.

3. Social Reward Processing


“Social media provide users with a consistent supply of social rewards, with each and every suggestion of social connection or reputation enhancement”Scientists use Facebook as an example because users can receive positive feedback in the form of a ‘like,’ or social connections in the form of a ‘friend’ request. “Even minimalistic cues of social success such as these may activate our brain’s reward system, and keep us coming back to Facebook for more”.


“Social rewards activate a network of brain regions including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), ventral striatum, and ventral tegmental area. Neuroimaging research of offline social behaviors has already implicated this network in each of the five key behaviors outlined above. For example, sharing of information with others activates the VMPFC and ventral striatum , as does receiving positive social feedback (e.g., getting cues that others understand you , agree with you, like you, or think highly of you. Providing others with these same social rewards (e.g., giving a ‘like’ on Facebook), may be akin to other types of prosocial behavior, which also activate the reward system (e.g., donating to charity). Reading others’ posts may likewise elicit reward activity, because receiving information elicits curiosity, a feeling associated with activity in the ventral striatum . Finally, the ventral striatum may underlie social comparison, with research showing that activity in this region reflects the comparison between one’s own obtained reward and another person’s, rather than the absolute level of one’s own reward . These regions, implicated in offline information sharing and receipt, giving and receiving feedback, and reward processing more broadly, likely also process the rewards endowed by social media”.

Other Networks:

All Science:

“In using social media, one must attend to stimuli, make decisions, and execute motor move- ments, amongst countless other behaviors. These implicate other brain systems in social media use, such as the frontoparietal attention network, the executive function network, and the motor system, respectively. Nevertheless, here we focus specifically on the cognitive processes that make social media unique as a platform for human social interaction.

Research into the neural underpinnings of social cognitive processes provides scaffolding for our understanding of processes involved in social media use. Future neuroscientific research with social media should shed light on the actual neurocognitive processes involved. To the extent that online social behaviors mirror those in the offline social world, we can harness this knowledge to expand extant social cognitive research in the context of new media”.


Social Media in Neurological Research

So why should we care about any of this? Well…besides the fact that our  brain is an incredible, mind blowing, super cool, mega computer…it provides valuable insights for neurologists and other science researchers.

“The online social media world often mimics the offline social world”. People establish a network of friends and acquaintances in the real world, and social media users can recreat this network online. As we have already seen with the five key behaviors, interactions within this online social network parallel offline social interactions. “Neuroscientists can capitalize upon these similarities by using measures from online social media use as a proxy for real-world social behaviors”.

Scientists have identified five major points of value moving forward…

  1. Social media data provide externally valid measures of people’s real-world behavior, while they are actually interacting with others.
  2. These data can be simpler to procure than offline social behaviors
  3. social media behaviors can be used in conjunction with parallel real-world behaviors and, thus, serve as an independent source of convergent data for a behavior of interest.

  4. social media data can be more easily quantifiable than offline social behaviors (e.g., number of likes, size or shape of social network)

  5. These data are typically amassed over an extended period of time and, as a result, may be more stable than data collected in a single laboratory session, which can be highly variable


    Conclusion: Our noggins are pretty cool and…

    “neuroscience research with social media is still in its infancy, and there is great potential for future scientific discovery . One important domain for prospective research will be to investigate the effects of regular social media use on our neural and behavioral functioning”.

    Now the heart and social media…that is a totally different story….




  1. Great post! The breakdown of how social media fulfills the 5 key social behaviors, and the “English translations” of the scientific terms made this post on a rather complicated topic easier to read. In my Digital Design class we have to make propaganda poster, and several people are doing theirs on social media addiction and promoting face to face conversation, so it was interesting to read about the actual scientific reasons why people become addicted to social media.

    Your intro about how our brains needing social stimulation is important to our survival reminded me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how social (aka love and belonging) is on the pyramid. Even though that theory has been criticized, it is true that humans have a need to be social, and social media is an easy and convenient way to fulfill that need. Before, you would actually have to find people to interact with. Now you can just pick up a phone to gain that sense of love and belonging.

    I also found the part about social reward processing interesting. It’s so easy for people to use social media to seek validation and get obsessed with gaining more and more likes on their posts. In a way, it really does seem like addictive behavior.

  2. mashamydear · ·

    Nice post! I wonder if any neurological studies have been done on trolling. From my understanding people who troll are very different in real social settings, so I wonder what this means from a neurological standpoint since you alluded to social media neurological behavior mimicking real life behavior. It was also interesting to read about how likes, retweets, etc activate our social reward circuits– it makes a lot of sense seeing how obsessive people can get about the “number of likes” or who liked their content. I really appreciated how you took super complicated concepts and simplified them for an easy, interesting read. I remember in my Intro to Psychology as a Natural Science class we talked about how little neurologists actually know the brain due to how immensely complex it is, so it’ll be interesting to see more studies detailing the effects social media has on us in greater depths.

  3. Very detailed and well-thought post. I believe you did us a service by unscrambling some of the medical jargon and rephrasing it in a concise manner. One comment I had throughout this entire blog was the power that these Social media companies have over us. Professor Kane has made this comment before. These companies literally hire developers to create a platform that is addictive to our brains. They take research like this and mold it into an addictive platform. Wow!

    Lastly, I enjoyed how you related this topic back towards our class towards the end of this blog. For example, the countless opportunities we have with data analytics from social platforms.

  4. dabettervetter · ·

    I find the convergence of science/psychology/social media to be fascinating! I would have never expected the information I learned in high school psychology to still be a major part of my education! I agree with your third point about social rewarding through social media. I never fail to feel validated when a post or comment of mine gets a lot of attention. We all post on social media in the hopes of being rewarded and the speed of the internet has made our reception time even sooner. As mashamydear above speaks about trolling I think the articles we read for class today answer her. In the Times article, the woman who was trolling the journalist spoke about how she did it simply for the reaction and how her audience and support was largest through the internet and she would not think of doing half of those things in real life.

  5. Great post. I read a book by a professor at UCLA that basically argued our brains were hardwired to be social, which convinces me you’re right on the money here.

  6. fernaneq4 · ·

    Very into the psychological aspect! I found this very relevant to myself (as I’m sure everyone did). I talked about avoiding social media when I moved from Florida to Boston because it would make me depressed to see my friends having fun in the sun while I was in the library surrounded by snow. Despite how miserable it made me to see their fun posts and instagrams, I still constantly monitored all social media to know what they were doing. I found that it was useful in keeping in touch and knowing what they were up to but there were so many negative effects on me. Not only that, but I frequently stalk myself just to see what other people may perceive when viewing my profile — that “social cognition” aspect. Great post!

  7. holdthemayo4653 · ·

    Very interesting post. I liked how you wove your opinion, science, and social media all together. For me the most interesting part of the post was the discussion around how neurological studies on social media can be applied to offline relationships. It’s awesome that social media can bring data and analytics that can’t be found “organically” in nature without surveys and controlled studies. I would love to read more on social media addictions and the correlation to happiness.

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