Human beings are social animals. We spend large portions of our waking hours communicating with others, and the possibilities for conversation are seemingly endless—we can make plans and crack jokes; reminisce about the past and dream about the future; share ideas and spread information. This ability to communicate—with almost anyone, about almost anything—has played a central role in our species’ ability to not just survive, but flourish.
How do you choose to use this immensely powerful tool—communication? Do your conversations serve as doorways to new ideas and experiences? Do they serve as tools for solving the problems of disease and famine?
Or do you mostly just like to talk about yourself?
If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation. On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
Why, in a world full of ideas to discover, develop, and discuss, do people spend the majority of their time talking about themselves? Recent research suggests a simple explanation: because it feels good.
In order to investigate the possibility that self-disclosure is intrinsically rewarding, researchers from the Harvard University Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This research tool highlights relative levels of activity in various neural regions by tracking changes in blood flow; by pairing fMRI output with behavioral data, researchers can gain insight into the relationships between behavior and neural activity. In this case, they were interested in whether talking about the self would correspond with increased neural activity in areas of the brain associated with motivation and reward.
In an initial fMRI experiment, the researchers asked 195 participants to discuss both their own opinions and personality traits and the opinions and traits of others, then looked for differences in neural activation between self-focused and other-focused answers. Because the same participants discussed the same topics in relation to both themselves and others, researchers were able to use the resulting data to directly compare neural activation during self-disclosure to activation during other-focused communication.
Three neural regions stood out. Unsurprisingly, and in line with previous research, self-disclosure resulted in relatively higher levels of activation in areas of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) generally associated with self-related thought. The two remaining regions identified by this experiment, however, had never before been associated with thinking about the self: the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), both parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system.
These newly implicated areas of the brain are generally associated with reward, and have been linked to the pleasurable feelings and motivational states associated with stimuli such as sex, cocaine, and good food. Activation of this system when discussing the self suggests that self-disclosure, like other more traditionally recognized stimuli, may be inherently pleasurable—and that people may be motivated to talk about themselves more than other topics (no matter how interesting or important these non-self topics may be).