What the Brain and Twitter Have in Common

social media swirl
Brain regions share information in much the same way Twitter users do. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

SAN DIEGO — The brain is a remarkably complex web of interconnections, and, as it turns out, has a few things in common with Twitter, new research suggests.

Researchers developed a theoretical model, presented here Sunday (Nov. 10) at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, which suggests information flows between neighboring brain regions and between Twitter users mostly in one direction — a property that prevents backflow of redundant information, the researchers say.

"Much like in journalism, you don't want yesterday's news," study researcher Stefan Mihalas, a computational neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, told LiveScience. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

Mihalas and his colleague Michael Buice compared three different kinds of networks: a network of mouse brain regions, a network of individual neurons in the roundworm C. elegans and a network of Twitter users. The researchers refer to each brain region, neuron or Twitter user as a "node," and they examined the probability with which each node was connected to its neighboring nodes.

All three kinds of networks showed similar properties. For example, if brain region A connected to region B, and region B connected to region C, region A probably connected to region C. Similarly, if Twitter user A followed user B, and user B followed user C, then user A probably followed user C as well.

What was more interesting, though, was how few of these were two-way connections. What this means, in the case of the mouse brain, is that few brain regions pass information backward. And in the case of Twitter, people with many followers only follow a few of those people back.

The directional nature of these networks makes sense, Mihalas said, because it reduces unnecessary redundancy. While some redundancy is helpful for providing context for the information, "you don't want to be drowned in context," he said.

Not all networks behave this way, however. Road networks, for instance, often have traffic moving in both directions.

But when it comes to brains and Twitter, at least, it looks to be a one-way street.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.