Your brain's desire to tweet, post on Instagram, or check your Facebook feed may be stronger when you're trying to chill out

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
June 02, 2015
Corbis Images

The siren call of social media can be hard to resist, especially when you're working on a difficult project, folding laundry, or doing, oh, anything less interesting than seeing what all your friends did over the weekend. And there's actually a legit reason for Facebook addiction (and Instagram insanity and Twitter mania): According to a new study from UCLA, when we need a mental break, that's our brains craving social interaction. (As for Managing Stress: 10 Ways to De-Stress Anytime, Anywhere.)

"The social nature of our brains is biologically based," said lead researcher Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. "When I want to take a break from work, the brain network that comes on is the same network we use when we're looking through our Facebook timeline and seeing what our friends are up to."

The researchers showed study participants photos of people, similar to the kind you see on social media. (So lots of babies and people hiking with their dogs?) Each picture was captioned with either a physical description of the person or a statement about how the person was feeling. People looking at the emotion-captioned pictures experienced major activity in their prefrontal cortex, revealing a social connection just from gazing at a photo. They found the same pattern of brain behavior when people took a mental break, leading them to conclude that we're wired to seek out other people whenever we're not working. (In fact, Social Media Actually Lowers Stress for Women.)

Blame that Facebook stalking on your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the brain structure responsible for making us see the world through a social lens. When this part of your brain is activated, you're more perceptive of other people and can make faster judgments about what emotions they may be feeling-about 10 percent faster, to be exact.

"It might not seem like a huge advantage, but being 10 percent faster, time after time, in each conversation will allow a person to be much better prepared and in control of their social lives," Lieberman explained, adding that this craving of our brains for social interaction could explain the "addiction" to social media that so many of us feel. (Although there is still an argument for old fashion alone time: How to Actually Enjoy Being Alone.)

Alone time is getting us ready to see the world socially in terms of other people's thoughts, feelings, and goals, Leiberman said. "That indicates it is important; the brain doesn't just turn systems on. We walk around with our brain trying to reset itself to start thinking about other minds."

But you do have to be careful, as becoming emotionally dependent on social media and technology is a very real possibility. (In fact, Cell Phone Addiction May Be a Legit Thing.)

So the next time you're tempted to check Facebook one more time before your meeting, don't feel so guilty-that social break might be exactly what your mind needs.