All You Need is Love: Friends, Social Interaction & Memory Health

Here’s the good news: a few minutes a day of scrolling through Facebook is not only fine, it can, if used sparingly and with a generosity of spirit, actually boost memory health for those who are socially or geographically isolated. What do we mean by a generosity of spirit? Well, “liking” your friends posts, getting involved in online conversations, and sharing updates, photos, or interesting articles with family and friends are all ways to stay in touch with those you love while simultaneously helping to keep your brain sharp.

The bad news, however, is that, as with most things, moderation is key. The more time you spend on social media — and the more social media accounts you have to manage —  the less beneficial it is for your health and well-being. Moreover, too much social media use or being passive on the site — not liking your friends’ posts, not conversing or sharing with others, scrolling mindlessly and perhaps jealously while marinating in feelings of FOMO (“fear of missing out,” meaning simply taking note of all the parties and hikes and good times you’re not experiencing without making your own plans to be out in the world) — can lead to depression, which has been proven to cause significant harm to memory health.

The simple solution? Shut your computer, pull yourself up off the couch, and get out there to talk to real friends and real family in real life. Or as the kids say these days, IRL.

Even if the research hadn’t proven the physical and emotional benefits of real life interaction, our gut tells us this is so. People who have close friends they see regularly; or those who engage in volunteer work and/or get involved in reading groups, clubs, lectures, classes, etc., not only have a decreased risk of mortality compared to those with less social interaction, their cognitive health is far more robust.

Not to get too mushy here, but the Beatles were right: all you need is love. Not just romantic love, but the love of friends; love for your neighbors; love for your community. Neuroscientists have long spoken of the social, emotional, and health benefits of mirroring, the subconscious mimicking and empathy that happens between humans in face-to-face social interactions. Next time you’re having coffee with a good friend or your spouse, you might try to notice, consciously, this instinctive phenomenon: she moves her head, you move your head; he smiles, you smile; they feel sadness, you literally feel their sadness as well through mirroring. Mirroring, while an innate response to face-to-face interaction, requires your brain to pay attention, which, in turn, fires up your synapses, which means not only is your brain working hard while you’re basking in love and friendship, you are experiencing the kind of empathy and connection to something greater than yourself which helps stave off the brain-destructive depression of isolation.

In other words, spending time with friends is not only good for the soul, it’s excellent for your grey matter as well. Of course, if you already have an active social life, but you notice a neighbor or friend who’s more isolated, one of the kindest acts you can do, both as a balm for their soul and a boost for their brain, is to include them in your plans.

Added bonus? It’s good for your brain, too.

 

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a 7-part series created by Neurotrack about maintaining your cognitive health and well-being. It’s Neurotrack’s way of marking World Alzheimer’s Month. The science is clear, the evidence unequivocal: the new habits you start today can make an enormous difference in the health of your brain of tomorrow. Next week we will discuss the perils of smoking: we all know quitting now is good for our physical health, but did you also know it’s good for your cognitive health? Please check back here to learn more.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.