A new study suggests that engaging with negative content on social media can lead to reduced activation of the prefrontal cortex and impairments in executive functioning. The findings were published in Social and Affective Neuroscience.
While it has been established that emotional stimuli can affect cognition, little is known about the neural consequences of consuming emotionally-arousing content on social media. Researchers Sarah M. Tashjian and Adriana Galván set out to explore this topic, by examining the cognitive consequences of reading negative, discriminatory tweets published by President Trump.
“As political attitudes in the United States become more polarized, the potential for engaging with perceived negative content on social media increases. A New York Times analysis estimated over half of President Trump’s 11,000+ tweets since becoming President involved attacks, with 1,421 of those 5,889 attacks levied against minority groups and immigrants (Shear et al., 2019),” Tashjian and Galván say.
An experimental study was conducted among 57 adults between the ages of 18 and 29. The participants were selected if they belonged to at least one historically marginalized group by way of ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The subjects were assigned to read either a set of real tweets published by Trump that were discriminatory in nature (negative tweet condition) or a set of real tweets that discussed neutral topics and appeared to come from a fictitious account (neutral tweet condition).
Both before and after reading the tweets, subjects completed 30 trials of a spatial reasoning task involving mental rotation, while whole-brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data was recorded. Participants also rated their affect across several states including anger, depression, disgust, and fear/anxiety.
As was expected, those reading the negative tweets experienced worsening affect after reading the tweets compared to those who read the neutral tweets.
Interestingly, it was found that those who read the neutral tweets showed improvements on the mental rotation task as they completed more trials. Those who read Trump’s discriminatory tweets, however, showed no improvements throughout the trials following exposure to the tweets.
Using fixed-effects general linear models, the researchers compared the subjects’ whole-brain activation following the tweet exposure to whole-brain activation at baseline. Then, researchers estimated neural habituation, that is, “greater response decrement over the course of stimuli presentation.”
The brain scans showed decreased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) throughout tweet exposure.
Importantly, subjects who reported worsening negative affect after reading the tweets displayed increased dlPFC habituation. Moreover, participants who displayed greater dlPFC habituation did not improve on the mental rotation task throughout the post-tweet trials, while those who showed less habituation did.
As the researchers explain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is a region associated with cognition and the control of emotions, and emotional distraction has been found to disrupt activation of the dlPFC. “There are several mechanisms by which emotionally charged information can interfere with executive resources. First, threats elicit attempts to regulate negative emotions, taxing resources like the dlPFC through implicit and automatic emotion regulation (Braunstein et al., 2017),” the authors relate.
Although their study focused on negative affect, the researchers acknowledge that positive emotions can also affect executive functioning — an interesting topic for future research.
As Tashjian and Galván remark, “Results demonstrate that widely read tweets may have deleterious effects on executive functioning in a large segment of the population: historically marginalized identity groups.”
The study, “Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex response to negative tweets relates to executive functioning”, was authored by Sarah M. Tashjian and Adriana Galván.