Oversharing on Facebook as satisfying as sex?

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By Diane Mapes

From bad breakups to bathroom updates to the amount of bacon your best friend can eat in a single sitting, we've all grown used to oversharers spilling their guts both online and off.

"I share pretty much everything," says Laura Keesee, a 25-year-old public relations account coordinator from Orlando, Fla. "From my random ADD thoughts to when some food has upset my stomach to details about my relationship. I think oversharing is part of my personality."

It's also intrinsically rewarding, according to new research out of Harvard University that used fMRI scans to show how our brains react to sharing information about ourselves with others.

"The Internet has drastically expanded the number of mediums through which we can talk about ourselves to other people," says Diana Tamir, a graduate student in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Harvard and lead author of a study published today in the journal PNAS. "We were interested in why people engage in self-disclosure so seemingly excessively. The hypothesis we wanted to test was whether or not this behavior provided people with intrinsic or subjective value -- did it feel good to do it."

As it turns out, it feels so good, our brains responds to self-disclosure the same way they respond to pleasure triggers like food, money or sex.

Tamir and her colleagues conducted five studies involving nearly 300 people, most of them from the Harvard and Cambridge community. In some studies, participants were asked to disclose their own opinions while being scanned using fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that directly measures the blood flow in the brain, thereby providing information on brain activity.

In others, participants were asked to complete certain behavioral tasks in exchange for varying amounts of money. Study subjects, as it turns out, were willing to go without 17 to 25 percent of their potential earnings if they could reveal info about themselves to others.

"We called this the 'penny for your thoughts study,'" says Tamir. "We wanted to know if people would pay money to engage in this behavior -- to share information about themselves with other people -- and it turns out they will."

Brain scans of participants revealed even more about the rewards of self-disclosure.

"When you look at the neural regions generally associated with rewards like money or sex or food, those same regions seemed to respond more robustly when people were engaging in self disclosure than when they were not," says Tamir. "From the evidence we see, there are a couple of different metrics of value -- both monetary and neural -- that show that self-disclosure is subjectively rewarding to people. It's valuable. It goes towards explaining why people do it so often."

Lawrence Winnerman, a 42-year-old project manager from Seattle, says he definitely finds oversharing rewarding.

"If I post something on Facebook or say something that I think is going to be really funny and also particularly revealing about myself, I'm looking for a reaction and a laugh," he says. "And I get really disappointed if I don't get one. I know I'm absolutely doing it for the value of the rewards."

According to Tamir, both shy and TMI types feel rewarded when they can talk about themselves.

"You might think that gregarious people are more highly rewarded but shy people also like to share their thoughts," she says. "My hunch is that everybody can find some kind of value reward in having an audience or a sympathetic ear, regardless whether you do that behavior a lot or a little. It provides you with some sort of reward."

Unfortunately, oversharing can also provide the occasional admonition. 

"My new boyfriend posted a picture of me on Facebook in a Viking helmet that was taken in a sex shop," says Winnerman, who also posted on the social networking site that he and his beau were at the shop to buy, ah, supplies. "I thought it was funny even knowing my mother would read it."

Her response?

"She immediately posted, 'TMI,'" he says.