Over lunch recently, two friends and I were talking about how to create buzz around a project we’ve been slowly organizing. We talked about emails, news releases, and the like, but we soon realized what we really needed was Facebook. With a set of “friends,” a lot of “liking,” and some strategic “sharing,” we’d be connected all over the place in no time.
Say what you will about the impact of social media (and the corporations behind the media), but there’s no question, social media is good at connections.
As it turns out, social networks may be so successful because they are mimicking what our brains do.
“Strangely,” says Olaf Sporns, Provost Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington, “neurons may solve their communication problems just like the people to which they belong.”
Sporns was referring to research that he and Martijn van den Heuvel, a professor at the Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience at University Medical Center Utrecht, published online recently in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sporns and van den Heuvel have been studying the brain’s so-called “rich club,” an influential, strongly interconnected set of brain region that engage in a wide range of complex behavioral and cognitive tasks.
In the current study, the brain connections measured — almost 700,000 of them– were classified as rich club connections if they connected nodes within the brain’s rich club; as feeder connections if they connected a non-rich club node to a rich-club node; and as local connections if they connected non-rich club nodes.
Rich club connections made up the majority of all long-distance neural pathways. The study also found that connections classified as rich club connections were used more heavily for communication than other feeder and local connections. Many communication paths, Sporns notes, first traveled toward the rich club before reaching their destinations.
“It is as if the rich club acts as an attractor for signal traffic in the brain,” Sporns says. “It soaks up information which is then integrated and sent back out to the rest of the brain.”
Brains neurons don’t have Facebook, but they do have their “rich club.” As Sporns puts it, “how do the neurons find paths to get in touch? Perhaps the rich club helps with this, offering the brain’s neurons and regions a way to communicate efficiently based on a routing strategy that involves the rich club.”