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Social Butterflies Have Sharper Brains

Studies find people who schmooze are mentally engaged

TUESDAY, Oct. 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Chat up your spouse, your mother or the stranger behind you in line at the bank. E-mail an old friend. Plan a dinner party. Just get a little sociable, already.

Then sit back and notice how much better you think and remember.

People who stay "socially engaged" tend to have better memories and fewer cognitive problems, says Oscar Ybarra, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who conducted a series of studies on the topic.

He looked at "how engaged people are socially, how often they talked to others, confided in others," Ybarra says. "We took those measurements and related them to how they were doing cognitively."

In one study, he looked at 3,617 subjects, aged 24 to 96, and analyzed data on how often they talked on the phone with a friend and other loved ones, how often they got together with friends and family, and how many people they had in their life with whom they could share private concerns and thoughts.

Next, the interviewers gave the subjects a mental exam and some arithmetic tasks to evaluate their thinking and memory skills. Even after controlling for such variables as physical health, age, income and education, the more socially active the subjects, the better their memory and the fewer cognitive problems they had.

Likewise, in another study of more than 2,000 older residents of four Middle Eastern countries, Ybarra found the more social interaction, the less impaired their cognitive functioning.

His studies of the correlation between social engagement and mental power are as yet unpublished, but he expects they will be soon.

The studies show only an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship in either direction, Ybarra says.

One unanswered question, Ybarra says, is whether the social interaction drives the improved mental functioning or vice versa. "In the end, we'll probably find it goes both ways," he adds.

The possibility that social interaction could drive cognitive functioning makes sense to another expert, Marilynn Brewer, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "This is a new movement, called social cognitive neuroscience," she says.

It focuses on the linkages between social interaction and the cognitive processes of the brain. "These findings are very consistent with that movement, the ideas that the human brain is a social brain."

Those who do research in this area, she says, believe that human thinking abilities evolved mainly to solve social problems. The reason people may be so smart, she says, is because they are so social.

Put another way, "to be successfully social, we have to acquire cognitive abilities," Brewer says. People are expected, for instance, to remember family members' birthdays and to show up at weddings and other social gatherings on the right date.

Not all psychology experts put as much emphasis on the importance of social engagement. Brewer points to an opposite camp, those who believe humans evolved mainly as "tool makers." They believe "our brains are for perceiving and manipulating objects in the environment and creating devices," and they see a person's use of tools as a sign of his potential.

From Ybarra's perspective, the take-home point is simple. "Being engaged socially does work your mind and your brain," Ybarra says. "There is a relationship, regardless of which way it goes."

So how much schmoozing is enough? "I'm a little tentative there," Ybarra says. "It's hard to put a number on it. But there doesn't seem to be a point after which you don't reap benefits."

What To Do

For more information on social cognitive neuroscience, click on the American Psychological Association. Read this article from Discovery Health about using your brain so as not to lose it.

SOURCES: Oscar Ybarra, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Marilynn Brewer, Ph.D., professor, psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus
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