Social media is something that has become commonplace in most of our lives – we wake up, we scroll the feed, we post throughout the day, like, comment, tweet and share. Most of us are familiar with the concept, despite social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook only coming into popular mainstream use in the last 15 years.
The concept of social media is simple – create an account which allows you to share and connect with friends, family and colleagues across the globe. Many modern-day relationships would cease to exist if it weren’t for the advent of social media, with around 74% of adults connecting on a daily (if not hourly) basis (Meshi, Tamir & Heekeren, 2015). Social media allows us to feel connected, less lonely and can even lead us to feel happier (Mauri et al., 2011).
According to a recent study, the number of friends or followers we acquire on social media also influences the size of different structures related to emotional regulation, and both online and offline social network size, such as the amygdala (Kanai, Bahrami, Roylance & Rees, 2011). This could mean that interaction on social media is linked to our social perception – meaning that if we are more social online, we may also be more socially aware offline.
However, with the power to connect and reach thousands, if not millions, of people also comes a darker side to social media. Numerous instances of online bullying, fake news, and negative impacts on mental health have been reported in recent years. Despite this, we continue to use these platforms – so what is it about these sites that make them so hard to resist?
Social media provides our brains with positive reinforcement in the form of social approval, which can trigger the same kind of neural reaction as your brain would experience through behaviour such as smoking or gambling. This pathway – the dopamine reward pathway – is associated with behaviours which give us a good feeling, such as food or exercise, leaving us looking for the positive reinforcement or reward. So, in the same way that eating chocolate may release dopamine and lead you to seek more of it, so does social media. Neuroscientists have reported that social media related ‘addictions’ share similar neural activity to substance and gambling addictions (Turel et al., 2014). However, those individuals who used social media sites heavily also showed differences in their brain’s inhibitory control system, which could result in lower focus and attentional abilities (Turel et al., 2014).
Cognitive neuroscientists have also shown that the rewarding behaviour we engage in online, such as sharing images or receiving likes, stimulate behaviour in an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is responsible for reward behaviour. However, activity in this area in response to positive social media feedback may be related to the processing of gains in our own reputation (Meshi, Morawetz & Heekeren, 2013). This could mean that we use social media as less of a means to communicate and share with one another, but more to gain social reputation in an attempt to boost our egos.
With around 5% of adolescents considered to have significant levels of addiction-like symptoms (Banyai et al., 2017), it is clear that social media use may be detrimental to our well-being, as well as beneficial for us socially. Moving forward, users can only be mindful of how powerful connecting with contacts can be, as there is a dark addictive side to the likes and shares we interact with every day.
Bányai, F., Zsila, Á., Király, O., Maraz, A., Elekes, Z., Griffiths, M. D., … & Demetrovics, Z. (2017). Problematic social media use: Results from a large-scale nationally representative adolescent sample. PLoS One, 12(1).
Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Roylance, R., & Rees, G. (2012). Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1732), 1327-1334.
Mauri, M., Cipresso, P., Balgera, A., Villamira, M., & Riva, G. (2011). Why is Facebook so successful? Psychophysiological measures describe a core flow state while using Facebook. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(12), 723-731.
Meshi, D., Morawetz, C., & Heekeren, H. R. (2013). Nucleus accumbens response to gains in reputation for the self relative to gains for others predicts social media use. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 439.
Meshi, D., Tamir, D. I., & Heekeren, H. R. (2015). The emerging neuroscience of social media. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(12), 771-782.
Turel, O., He, Q., Xue, G., Xiao, L., & Bechara, A. (2014). Examination of neural systems sub-serving Facebook “addiction”. Psychological reports, 115(3), 675-695.
If, like me, you spent your childhood surrounded by Gameboys and computer games, you have probably heard warnings from your parents that your eyes will turn square, and that your brain will turn to mush. While we can safely say that we are not suffering from an epidemic of square-eyed youths, it is less clear what gaming is doing to our brain.
In the support of worried parents all around the world, there is a disorder associated with gaming. Internet gaming disorder is defined as being an addictive behaviour, characterised by an uncontrollable urge to play video games. In 2013, internet gaming disorder was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), with a footnote, saying that more research on the matter is needed (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Similarly, in 2018, the world health organisation (WHO) included internet gaming disorder to the section ‘disorders due to addictive behaviours’ (World Health Organization, 2018).
There is evidence to suggest that internet gaming does lead to changes in brain regions associated with addiction. Structurally, it has been shown that individuals diagnosed with internet gaming disorder show an increase in the size of a brain region known as the striatum, a region associated with pleasure, motivation, and drug addiction (Cai et al 2016, Robbins et al 2002). The brains of those with internet gaming disorder also show altered responses to stimuli related to gaming. In one study, two groups of participants were assessed: one with internet gaming addiction, and the other without. All the participants with internet gaming disorder were addicted to the popular multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. The participants were shown a mixture of visual cues, some being associated with World of Warcraft, and others being neutral. Whilst being shown the visual cues, the brains of the participants were scanned for brain activation using an fMRI machine. It was observed that when being shown visual cues relating to gaming, the participants with internet gaming disorder showed increased activation of brain regions associated with drug addiction, including the striatum and the prefrontal cortex. The activation of these brain regions was positively correlated with self-reported ‘craving’ for these games; the higher the craving for the game, the higher the levels of activation (Ko et al 2009). These studies, among others, do suggest that gaming does have a place in joining the list of non-substance related addictive disorders.
But don’t uninstall your games yet; it is important to note that not everyone who plays computer games will become addicted. And what if there is a brighter side to gaming? What if all those hours of grinding away on World of Warcraft, thrashing your friends on Mario Kart, or chilling on Minecraft might actually benefit you in some way? There is a small, but growing, amount of research that suggests that gaming might be good for your brain.
What we have learnt about how the brain responds to the real world, is being applied to how the brain responds to the virtual world. In the famous work of Maguire et al (2000), it was demonstrated that the taxi drivers of London showed an increased volume of the hippocampus, a region associated with spatial navigation and awareness. This increased volume was attributed to the acquisition of a spatial representation of London. Following from this, some researchers asked how navigation through a virtual world may impact the hippocampus.
In one of these studies, the researchers investigated how playing Super Mario 64, a game in which you spend a large amount of time running and jumping around a virtual world (sometimes on a giant lizard) impacts the hippocampus. When compared to a group that did not train on Super Mario 64, the group that trained on Super Mario 64 for 2 months showed increased volumes of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. As reduced volumes of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are associated with disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative diseases, the researchers speculate that video game training may have a future in their treatment (Kühn et al 2014). In another study, the impact of training on Super Mario 64 on the hippocampus of older adults, who are particularly at risk of hippocampus-related pathology, was assessed. It was observed that the group that trained by playing Super Mario 64 for 6 months showed an increased hippocampal volume and improved memory performance compared to participants who did not train on Super Mario 64 (West et al 2017). So, it appears that navigating virtual worlds, as well as the real world, may lead to hippocampal volume increase and may have positive outcomes on cognition.
A screenshot of Super Mario 64. This game involves exploration of a virtual world. Image taken from Kühn et al 2014
Maybe it makes sense that the world being explored doesn’t have to be real to have an effect on the hippocampus, and games like Super Mario 64 have plenty to offer in terms of world exploration and navigation. But what about the most notorious of games, those first-person shooter action games? It has been suggested that first-person shooter games can lead to increased aggressive behaviours in those who play them, however researchers do not agree that this effect exists (Markey et al 2014 Greitemeyer et al 2014). Nevertheless, can these action games also have more positive effects on the cognitive abilities of the brain? Unlike Super Mario 64, these games require the player to quickly respond to stimuli and rapidly switch between different weapons and devices to use, depending upon the given scenario. Some researchers have investigated how playing action games, such as Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption, or Counterstrike, impact short-term memory. Participants who either did not play action games, causally played action games, or were experienced in playing action games were tested for visual attention capabilities. The participants were tested on numerous visual attention tests, involving recall and identification of cues that were flashed briefly on a screen. The researchers observed that those who played action games showed significantly better encoding of visual information to short-term memory, dependent on their gaming experience, compared to those who did not (Wilms et al 2013).
In another study, the impact of playing action games on working memory was assessed. Working memory is a cognitive system involved in the active processing of information, unlike short-term memory which involves the recall of information following a short delay (Baddeley et al 2003). In this study, the researchers tested groups of participants who either did not play action games or did play action games. The researchers tested the participants’ working memory by utilising a cognitive test known as the “n-back test”. This test involves watching a sequence of squares that are displayed on a screen in alternating positions. As the test progresses the participants have to remember the position of the squares on the screen from the previous trials whilst memorising the squares being shown to them at that moment. The researchers observed that people who did play action games outperformed those who did not on this test; they were better able to remember the previous trials, whilst simultaneously memorising the current trials (Colzato et al 2013). From these studies, it appears that action games may have some benefit on the cognitive abilities of the players, leading to increased short-term processing of information in those who play them.
A screen grab from first person shooter games: Call of Duty: WW2 (left), and Halo (right). These fast-paced games involve quickly reacting to stimuli and making quick decisions to bypass enemies and progress in the game.
So, for the worried parents, and the individuals who enjoy indulging in video games, maybe it’s not all bad. As long as you are not suffering from a form of gaming addiction (and if you think you might be please see a health expert) maybe all these hours gaming may actually not be as bad for your brain as it might seem. But ultimately, much more research is needed to understand how a broader range of games played over childhood development, and for time periods of years and decades, affects our brains and mental health.
If you think you may be suffering from a gaming addiction, see the NHS page for more information.
Edited by Lauren Revie & Monika śledziowska
American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub
Baddeley, A., 2003. Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews neuroscience, 4(10), p.829
Cai, C., Yuan, K., Yin, J., Feng, D., Bi, Y., Li, Y., Yu, D., Jin, C., Qin, W. and Tian, J., 2016. Striatum morphometry is associated with cognitive control deficits and symptom severity in internet gaming disorder. Brain imaging and behavior, 10(1), pp.12-20.
Colzato, L.S., van den Wildenberg, W.P., Zmigrod, S. and Hommel, B., 2013. Action video gaming and cognitive control: playing first person shooter games is associated with improvement in working memory but not action inhibition. Psychological research, 77(2), pp.234-239
Greitemeyer, T. and Mügge, D.O., 2014. Video games do affect social outcomes: A meta-analytic review of the effects of violent and prosocial video game play. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(5), pp.578-589.
Ko, C.H., Liu, G.C., Hsiao, S., Yen, J.Y., Yang, M.J., Lin, W.C., Yen, C.F. and Chen, C.S., 2009. Brain activities associated with gaming urge of online gaming addiction. Journal of psychiatric research, 43(7), pp.739-747
Kühn, S., Gleich, T., Lorenz, R.C., Lindenberger, U. and Gallinat, J., 2014. Playing Super Mario induces structural brain plasticity: gray matter changes resulting from training with a commercial video game. Molecular psychiatry, 19(2), p.265
Maguire, E.A., Gadian, D.G., Johnsrude, I.S., Good, C.D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R.S. and Frith, C.D., 2000. Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(8), pp.4398-4403.
Markey, P.M., Markey, C.N. and French, J.E., 2015. Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(4), p.277
Robbins, T.W. and Everitt, B.J., 2002. Limbic-striatal memory systems and drug addiction. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 78(3), pp.625-636
West, G.L., Zendel, B.R., Konishi, K., Benady-Chorney, J., Bohbot, V.D., Peretz, I. and Belleville, S., 2017. Playing Super Mario 64 increases hippocampal grey matter in older adults. PloS one, 12(12), p.e0187779.
Wilms, I.L., Petersen, A. and Vangkilde, S., 2013. Intensive video gaming improves encoding speed to visual short-term memory in young male adults. Acta psychologica, 142(1), pp.108-118
World Health Organization [WHO]. 2018. ICD-11 beta draft – Mortality and morbidity statistics. Mental, behavioural or neurodevelopmental disorders.
As grant applications within science become increasingly competitive, the pressure grows to highlight the direct benefits of one’s research to human health and prosperity. These are the impact statements–is your research going to directly contribute to the “cure”?
Unfortunately, this attitude obscures a very important source of new knowledge and tools–simple curiosity and ‘play’. It is important to remember we don’t always know what we are doing when we dive into research. In fact, simple exploration of interesting concepts can have very important knock-on benefits!
For example, as we improve technology for leisure, developing more powerful smartphones and more realistic video games, we are also creating tools which can feed back into health and medicine applications. Smartphone apps are a very common example of this feedback. CloudUPDRS, an Android app designed by George Roussos and colleagues at Birbeck, University of London, takes advantage of the smartphone’s gyroscopic sensors to conduct frequent physical tests for Parkinson’s patients. Tying these physical tests and the associated self-assessment questionnaires to this constant companion device help researchers track symptoms and disease progression regularly and over an extended period of time.
Developments in smartphones for leisure made this tool possible, but the feedback loop between leisure technology, health research, and medicine extends beyond our phones. Virtual reality, used for everything from gaming to drone flying, can be used to help train surgeons.
It is very important to keep investing in science and technology as a whole, even when the benefits to us aren’t immediately apparent. Encouraging play and building tools for play can help us creatively solve important problems. Restricting funding to “the most relevant” research angles may be an important investment strategy, but it may also risk restricting our creativity. Curiosity beyond ourselves helps us develop new knowledge –while our questions may not directly apply to a “cure”, they may incidentally equip us with tools we didn’t know we needed.
You wouldn’t blame someone with breast cancer or cystic fibrosis for their disease, would you? We know they are caused by impaired biological mechanisms. Lifestyle choices can exacerbate risk but there is less stigma associated with suffering from a ‘physical’ rather than mental illness. With both types of illness stigma stems from a lack of understanding. If someone walks down the street arguing with themselves you avoid them and think “that person is crazy”. You can’t help it, you avoid their gaze and hurry on by, you don’t want to get involved with something so out of the ordinary. But why? Why should we assign blame to people for something that is not their fault when we wouldn’t do it for other diseases?
The way mental health conditions are portrayed in the media reinforces our mistrust and negative reaction to sufferers. Time and time again they are depicted as evil, deceitful and intending harm, despite this rarely being the case. Empathising with people who suffer from mental illness and commit crime doesn’t detract from what they do, but understanding why they may have behaved in that way is vital to preventing it happening again.
In 2015 a pilot crashed a passenger plane in the Alps in an apparent suicide. It later came out that he had been battling depression for a long time. The majority of the coverage painted him as devious for hiding his illness and, in some reports, just waiting for the opportunity to harm others. What he did was horrible, and heart-breaking for those who lost loved ones, and it reinforces our aversion to dealing with someone with suicidal tendencies. Despite our gut reaction to this we must look at why he was suffering and whether he was he receiving suitable help. This will help us understand why he did it, if it could have been prevented and to stop anyone else from doing it again. The pressure of his job may have played a role in his depression and subsequent suicide. It has been highlighted how stressful a pilot’s life can be, on top of all the usual stresses people deal with, and how difficult and career ending it can be to seek help. If society were more accepting of mental health disorders and there was less attached stigma to a diagnosis people may be more willing to seek help, thus reducing the chance of something like this occurring.
Should we prevent someone doing a job simply because they have a mental health condition? You wouldn’t do the same for someone with a physical illnesses. There will be some instances where it just isn’t feasible for them to carry out a job, but blanket banning someone from a career due to a mental health diagnosis is unreasonable. This is especially pertinent as although many disorders are given one name they often describe a spectrum of conditions and symptoms. Therefore, not everyone with a condition will behave in the same manner, and those who are more able to cope socially may be penalised for having a related condition. Discounting a proportion of society based on the actions of one person is detrimental to everyone. Cases like this flight, with such negative coverage and discussion of his diagnosis of depression, further fuels mistrust and suspicion. This it in turn makes it harder for those suffering to seek help, increasing the likelihood of it happening again.
Imagine if you were made redundant, or that you just lost someone close to you. You don’t think you cope anymore and all you want to do is stop but it has been drummed into you by friends, family and the media that being depressed, or needing help is weak and pathetic so you try to struggle by alone. It becomes easy to see how people end up in terrible situations, possibly even taking their own life. It will take time to change the public’s opinion but the media could be so powerful in changing our attitudes towards mental health, especially through social media campaigns such as Time to Change and Rethink Mental Illness. The media has been used to provide insight into the lives of sufferers before. A collaboration between Bryan Charnley and a journalist set out to illustrate his experiences of schizophrenia through self-portraits, whilst taking varying degrees of medication. Tragically, it ended with Bryan taking his own life, but his haunting, and increasingly distressing paintings, live on. Increasing our exposure to messages of support, reminding people that they are not alone and that there is no shame in suffering from mental health conditions, and providing them with information on how to get help is a vital step forward in reducing stigma.
So why is our gut reaction to mental health generally so negative? Is it purely due to misinformation and fear portrayed by the majority of the media coverage? Can we combat the stigma with our rapidly increasing understanding of the biological basis of these diseases?
How much of a human do you need to replace to create a cyborg? How far can you go before a cyborg becomes a biological computer? Does Inspector Gadget from the 1983 TV series still retain the autonomy, dignity, and essential rights he had before becoming a cyborg?
Some of the common characteristics that define science fiction cyborg include mechanical limbs, enhanced senses, and computer interfaces linked directly to the consciousness. At the present, we are getting better at making robotic limbs to replace lost arms and legs, but what if we could distribute an electrical system throughout the brain and make that SciFi step? This paper suggests a graphene based neural interface might get us closer to electronic neural prostheses. Graphene, which has very interesting properties we will not go into here, but which make it a material with promise for building neuro-interfaces.
Neuro-interfaces are systems that allow us to send signals (usually electrical) to neurons or brain tissue. Think of it as a very basic computer output into a cyborg brain, allowing an external computer to control programs. If we send signals to neurons to fire or to repress firing, we can hijack the basic “what fires together, wires together” mechanism of synaptic pruning. Consequently, an extended neuro-interface could tell brain regions when to be active or silent, and even coordinate multiple regions.
But how would we distribute such an electrical system throughout the brain? While the particular graphene-based interface described in the paper had the advantage of being a good substance for the neurons to grow on without change to their physiological properties, it would be difficult to distribute the interface to every neuron in a fully developed brain. The interface investigated is a structure on which the neurons adhere as they grow, and is less compatible with integration into an already existing structure.
However, this doesn’t preclude its use in developed brains for cyborg prosthesis and enhancement! The paper pointed out the use of such an interface for brain-damage repair and sensory restoration therapies. Targeted use of such an interface to a small brain region may be much more feasible. Imagine injecting a graphene interface onto a damaged or even epileptic area, and using that interface to direct neural activity. One might even grow brain repair tissue on a graphene structure for coordination of synaptic connections. This could allow clinicians to grow patient-specific brain tissue in a dish with a useful, pre-loaded synaptic structure. (Of course, we’re not sure how we’d know what synaptic connections or structure we might need yet. This is where we venture further into SciFi).
For the near future, implanting this programmed tissue could immediately restore some brain functions (more sensory perceptions and motor skills than personality). The graphene interface might even be programmed to assist synaptic plasticity and repair mechanisms to encourage innervation and long-term recovery. The bumbling Inspector could probably have benefited from some brain repair and cognitive enhancements…
But that’s just a small section of the brain. And it’s mostly cortical surface repair–near the outer edges of the brain.
If we wanted a brain for which every neuron was connected to a graphene interface, for a really complex cyborg, we’d probably have to grow it from scratch.
The programmable nature of an electronic system might mean we could program how that brain developed, and what synaptic connections it kept, through the hijacking of the “what fires together, wires together” rule I mentioned earlier. This graphene interface seems to be equipped to stimulate firing or potentially depress firing, rather than directly stimulate the outgrowth of new neuronal processes for further dendritic and axonal connections. Thus, complementing a binary “fire/depress” control with normal developmental pathways, we might eventually grow and program a brain with total specification (again, total SciFi here) …
But is the brain we’ve grown a biological computer at this point? Or does some element of human autonomy, dignity, and independence still exist? The answer would likely depend on how good we were at programming a developing brain, and what we chose to specify or leave to environmental or genetic influence without direct choice on the clinician’s part.
What happens if someone hacks into this grown and programmed brain? Are they hacking a biological computer or a human being?
Regardless of how far into the realm of science fiction we Go-Go-Gadget, the potentials of graphene for building neuro-interfaces is exciting, and further blurs the line between brain and computer, human and electronic prosthesis. We should use this to its full advantage for brain repair and therapy, but we should also consider how much we wish to exert direct control over how our brains, or new brains we bring into being, work. At what point are we human, cyborg, or biological machine, and should we assign value to such distinctions at all?
Fabbro, Alessandra, et al. “Graphene-Based Interfaces do not Alter Target Nerve Cells.” ACS nano (2015).