Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Strange experiments and research findings

By Magdeline Lum

Facebook Boosting Grey Matter

The many hours pored over Facebook may not be in vain after all – they could be adding grey matter to the part of the brain linked with social skills. Prof Geraint Rees of University College, London found a correlation between the number of Facebook friends and a higher density of grey matter in a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

What’s a high number of Facebook friends? As part of the study, a group of 125 university students whose average age was 23 reported having just several to nearly 1000 Facebook friends. The researchers shied away from defining what constitutes a high number of Facebook friends but did refer to Dunbar’s Number, which limits the average social circle of one person to 150 people.

MRI scans of the brains of volunteers were taken. The researchers found that people who reported higher number of Facebook friends had a higher density of brain matter in three areas of the brain: the superior temporal sulcus, middle gyrus and the entorhinal complex. These three areas are linked to social skills such as perception of social cues from others from facial expressions and memories for faces and names.

In a separate experiment a subsample of 65 volunteers was chosen to see whether there was a link between the online world and real world in brain structure. The volunteers provided details on their friends in the real world as well as their online friends on Facebook. The researchers could only find a correlation between the number of Facebook friends and an area of the brain called the bilateral amygdala. This is an area thought to process and store memories of emotional events.

Although researchers have linked the number of Facebook friends to brain structures, it is a chicken-and-egg problem because they do not know which comes first. Are some people hardwired to be sociable, or can the use of Facebook and potentially other social network sites change brain structures? Further research is needed to answer this.

IgNobel Prize for Beetles Bonking Beer Bottles
The 2011 IgNobel Prize for Biology has been awarded for the discovery that the male Australian jewel beetle (Julodimorpha bakewelli) mistakes beer bottles for eligible females.

Thirty years ago, Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz were conducting fieldwork 12 km south-east of Dongara in Western Australia when they noticed male J. bakewelli seeking large flightless females descending on a stubby – but not to drink the beer. “There was no liquid remaining in the stubbies which might have attracted beetles,” the researchers noted.

Instead the males were attempting to copulate with the stubbies. The males were so focused on the task that they would not leave the stubbies unless they were removed by the researchers. One male specimen was even found being attacked by ants biting the soft portions of its everted genitalia. Another male specimen was found a few centimetres away, dead and covered with ants.

The males were only fond of the stubbies. A discarded wine bottle made of a different brown-coloured glass failed to attract the attention of the males.

Gwynne and Rentz noted that the “shiny brown colour of the glass [of the stubby] is similar to the shiny yellow-brown elytra of J. bakewelli, and the small bumps at the base of the stubby reflect light in the same way that the elytra did. The stubby was appearing to be a plump female J. bakewelli”.

In closing, Gwynne and Rentz remarked: “Improperly disposed of beer bottles not only present a physical and “visual” hazard in the environment, but also could potentially cause great interference with the mating system of a beetle species”.