A recent Fast Company article examines research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak that suggests social networking triggers the release of the generosity-trust chemical in our brains: oxytocin. Zak’s research combines economics with biology, neuroscience, and psychology, as well as the relationship between empathy and generosity. Adam Penenberg, the author of the article, set out to investigate whether Zak’s research on oxytocin could be applied to social media.

More specifically, he wondered:

What explains the need of our BlackBerry-bearing, Twitter-tweeting Facebook friends for constant connectivity? Are we biologically hardwired to do it? Do our brains react to tweeting just as they do to our physical engagement with people we trust and enjoy?

As it turns out, they do. Penenberg participates in a Twitter experiment in Zak’s lab that tests his oxytocin levels while he tweets. The results are astounding. In just 10 minutes of tweeting, Penenberg’s oxytocin levels spiked 13.2 percent, equivalent to the hormonal spike experienced by a groom at a wedding! Penenberg’s stress hormones cortisol and ACTH also went down: 10.8 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively.

In short, Zak explains:

Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for. E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.

Now I get why I trust people like Hildy Gottlieb and Andre Blackman, people who I’ve never met in person. I would recommend them not only because of their expertise but because of the online relationship I have with them.

If Zak’s research is conclusive, then businesses have even more of a reason to invest in social media. Nonprofits have even more incentive to become networked. Given the emotional effects of social networking, organizations can leverage their efforts to build trust among their Twitter followers and Facebook friends in a way that makes them more likely to donate, volunteer and advocate on their behalf.

As Penenberg concludes,

As Zak and others deepen their study of oxytocin, we may better understand why people with friends live longer and get sick less, and why we are compelled to be social animals online and off. If these changes apply in the world of social media, the implications for business—for every brand, company, and marketer trying to understand the now intimately networked world—could be significant.