Increasing cognitive function could be as easy as chatting with a friend, according to a University study released last week.
The study, led by psychologist Oscar Ybarra, a researcher at the University’s Institute for Social Research, measured 192 undergraduates’ performance on cognitive tasks following 10-minute conversations with one another. The tasks measured mental processing speeds, general knowledge or executive functioning in the brain.
Ybarra and his colleagues found that friendly conversation boosted memory, self-awareness and the ability to suppress external and internal distractions — essential problem-solving skills.
The study also found that students who conversed in a competitive tone did not benefit cognitively.
“We believe that performance boosts come about because some social interactions induce people to try to read others’ minds and take their perspectives on things,” Ybarra wrote in a University press release.
In an interview, Ybarra said the goal of the study was to show a casual link between social interactions and cognitive function.
“Much of the prior research is survey-based and correlational, so part of my motivation was to show, with experiments, that there’s a causal influence which runs from the social act or social connections to cognitive functioning,” he explained.
He added that he was surprised to find that just a short period of interaction can result in improved mental functioning, and he plans to continue exploring the relationship between socializing and cognitive function, specifically focusing on whether social interactions can bring back lost cognitive skills.
“One direction (for future study) is to examine how social connections can serve as a restorative device … such as looking at the potential for social interactions and social connections to help you focus and maybe help restore cognitive functioning,” he said.
Ybarra added that the findings of his study can be relevant on a daily basis.
“I think the cognitive outcomes that we studied are very basic in the sense that they are useful in problem solving and daily life,” he said. “These outcomes are a core ingredient in our ability to problem solve.”
Irene Yeh, a Rackham and School of Social Work Ph.D. student and research assistant for the study, echoed Ybarra’s comments in an e-mail interview.
“By understanding the mechanisms through which our sociality influences general cognition, we can develop strategies that incorporate the mental benefits of social interactions in problem-solving, education, and mental fitness interventions,” Yeh wrote.