Socializing may boost memory, brain function

BY ELAINE LAFAY
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 22, 2008

When relaxing with friends after a string of midterms, it's probably safe to say that improving your brain function is the last thing on your mind. But according to a study, you're already doing it.

The study concluded that socializing helps people sharpen their wits, meaning going to parties could help you do better in school.

"Social interaction is critical for building a knowledge base and important for helping people stay mentally sharper," said Oscar Ybarra, an associate psychology professor and the study's lead researcher.

During conversation, the brain rapidly analyzes cues, like whether a person is being ironic or honest. These factors that appear to be quick responses are actually complex intricate process within the brain.

"Even in the simplest interaction when you know someone fairly well, you have to take all these things into account," said Eugene Burnstein, another University researcher who worked on the study. "When I'm talking to you, I have to think about what you have in mind and kind of mind-read in order to answer you."

Two studies shaped the researchers' recent conclusion. One involved participants ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-nineties, while the other study was conducted in Ann Arbor with University students.

Ybarra said the first study was a survey intended to determine whether there was a relationship between social interaction and cognitive function. It showed that people with a fuller social life performed better on memory tests and simple recall questions like naming 10 presidents of the United States.

That study found that, regardless of age, brain function improved with a higher amount of socializing, Ybarra said.

The second study, which analyzed mostly University students, proved that these effects could occur in the short term.

The survey participants were randomly divided into three groups and assigned different tasks. One group was assigned to watch an episode of "Seinfeld," another did brainteasers like crossword puzzles and the last group discussed a hot-button issue in pairs.

Afterwards, when asked to complete menial tasks like counting backwards, those who had done brainteasers or had a discussion demonstrated slightly sharper brain function than those who had watched a TV episode.

Burnstein said the study's goal was to prove that there is a relationship between the richness of a person's social life and cognitive performance at tasks like studying for an exam.

He said more research is needed to find out what level of socializing is optimal.

Ybarra said it would be a mistake to adopt an "all work and no play" philosophy - or the other way around - because a person would miss out on a necessary dimension of brain function.

LSA junior Stephen Hickner was happy to hear that finding.

"What people don't realize is that it is probably a good thing to get out on the weekends," said Hickner, grinning.