The NYT reports a great experiment originally published in Nature Communications: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/science/friendship-brain-health.html. The researchers started with an entire graduate school class of 279 students who now knew each other fairly well (none of those unstable and immature undergraduates used for this study, thank goodness) and asked them to fill out questionnaires about their social connections within this group. They then asked them to undergo a further study using brain scans and 42 agreed (just 42? Come on, kiddoes, help us understand—you’re in graduate school for some reason, right?) The scans were done while the subjects watched videos of relatively mundane events, e.g., an astronaut demonstrating the gelatinous behavior of water in low gravity, a Jewish wedding of gay men, some comedy clips, a music video (described as awful), etc. They filtered the results for common features of identity, like ethnicity, religion, and family income, and then analyzed them for congruence among brain responses and closeness of social connections. Brilliant, eh?
The results showed a significant correlation between neural responses to the videos and the how close the subjects were, i.e., the closer the friendship, the greater congruence in neural responses. The researchers trained a computer program to analyze neural response patterns and predict degree of friendship and this was successful. Now the researchers say they will use the imaging methodology on an incoming class before they get to know one another and see if they can predict who will develop closer friendships. This is such a grounded and intelligent a research endeavor; I hope they get good funding during these perilous economic times for science. (Oh, you didn’t understand that when Americans elect anti-science officials that funding for even basic research is reduced? Look at the budget priorities of this administration.)
The NYT article also gives some context. Friendship is an increasingly important concept for us to understand as researchers study it in a variety of ways. It protects against illness, stress reactions, bad habits, etc. Many other animals form and maintain friendships; birds do it, even bats do it by regurgitating blood to feed a sick friend (but not that difficult bat hanging over there). I have written here in the past that we have long known that the mammalian hippocampus keeps a spatial map to help move around in a reliable fashion and that more recently we have learned that the hippocampus keeps up with autobiographical experiences and time and with social objects, as intimates and familiars are called. Eric Kandel reports that the facial recognition system for primates is very well developed, including a large number visual processing cells dedicated to faces, both identifying and reading. Our relationships can range from familial and intimate through close friend and acquaintance to workplace relations to strangers, and now with our media engagement, many feel identification with people they have never met and can never meet because the personality is a fictional portrayal (Sorry, Outlander fans, Jamie and Clare are only married fictionally; Sam and Catriona each have their own lives, though I wonder how their neural responses to the experimental videos would match up).
The scientists note that the areas of greatest convergence were in the nucleus accumbens, a very old center important for reward, and the superior parietal lobe, a relatively new center important for attentional focus. So the people with similar interests attend to similar patterns and tend to like each other. This report does not give any differences in lateralization, nor were personality factors included, but clearly much delightful work can follow from this pioneering study. Oh, and what about married people, do our patterns at the beginning of a relationship predict any success? Do our patterns after being together a good while move towards more congruence? And if people have a personal profile of aesthetic responses, say as measured by Aesthemos, do their neural patterns match? And the list goes on.
The NYT article ends with a quotes that I really like from Alexander Nehamas, a philosopher at Princeton; the short version is: “the aesthetic choices we make [are] an indication of who we are” and we live “immersed in art.” I have been pondering how Homo sapiens’ penchant for art is critical for our humanity for a good while now; this blog is one general result, the posting on Aesthemos is a specific example. Recently I have reflected on the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and how this deep aesthetic is a manifestation of a general principle of biological beings from the fit between proteins that forward organic processes to the pattern finding talents so evident in ourselves. So it makes very good sense to me that we will find some form of aesthetic governing the formation of friendships once we figure out how to look for this, and of course, more people need to understand that aesthetics, in all of its manifestations, is important enough to appreciate and understand. Travel on.