"In our study, socializing was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance," said Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and a lead author of the study with ISR psychologist Eugene Burnstein and psychologist Piotr Winkielman from the University of California, San Diego.
In the article, Ybarra, Burnstein and colleagues report on findings from two types of studies they conducted on the relationship between social interactions and mental functioning.
Their research was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
In one study, they examined ISR survey data to see whether there was a relationship between mental functioning and specific measures of social interaction. The survey data included information on a national, stratified area probability sample of 3,610 people between the ages of 24 and 96. Their mental function was assessed through the mini-mental exam, a widely used test that measures knowledge of personal information and current events and that also includes a simple test of working memory.
Participants' level of social interactions was assessed by asking how often each week they talked on the phone with friends, neighbors and relatives, and how often they got together.
After controlling for a wide range of demographic variables, including age, education, race/ethnicity, gender, marital status and income, as well as for physical health and depression, the researchers looked at the connection between frequency of social contact and level of mental function on the mini-mental exam.
The higher the level of participants' social interaction, researchers found, the better their cognitive functioning. This relationship was reliable for all age groups, from the youngest through the oldest.
In a second experiment, the researchers conducted a laboratory test to assess how social interactions and intellectual exercises affected memory and mental performance. Participants were 76 college students, ages 18 to 21. Each student was assigned to one of three groups. Those in the social interaction group engaged in a discussion of a social issue for 10 minutes before taking the tests. Those in the intellectual activities group completed three tasks before taking the tests. These tasks included a reading comprehension exercise and a crossword puzzle. Participants in a control group watched a 10-minute clip of "Seinfeld."
Then all participants completed two different tests of intellectual performance that measured their mental processing speed and working memory.
"We found that short-term social interaction lasting for just 10 minutes boosted participants' intellectual performance as much as engaging in so-called 'intellectual' activities for the same amount of time," Ybarra said.
"To our knowledge, this experiment represents the only causal evidence showing that social interaction directly affects memory and mental performance in a positive way."
According to Ybarra, the findings suggest that visiting with a friend or neighbor may be just as helpful in staying sharp as doing a daily crossword puzzle.
The findings also suggest that social isolation may have a negative effect on intellectual abilities as well as emotional well-being. And for a society characterized by increasing levels of social isolation?a trend sociologist Robert Putnam calls "Bowling Alone"?the effects could be far-reaching.
Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world?s oldest academic survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world?s largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.
Listen to a podcast about the research
More on Ybarra