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Locked in: What neuroscience is telling us about friendships




U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden share a laugh as the US Senior Men's National Team and Brazil play during a pre-Olympic exhibition basketball game at the Verizon Center on July 16, 2012 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden share a laugh as the US Senior Men's National Team and Brazil play during a pre-Olympic exhibition basketball game at the Verizon Center on July 16, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

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It’s no secret that most humans tend to surround themselves with like-minded friends.

But so far, no one has scientifically proven that similar activity occurs in the brains of people who have identified themselves as “friends” with one another. Until now.

In a study recently published in the journal “Nature,” researchers at UCLA and Dartmouth College were able to predict through brain scans of business school students which of them considered each other “friends.” First, the students were asked whether they were “friends” (someone you’d meet for a drink, meal, movie, or other “informal social activities”) with the other students. If two students named one another, they were considered “friends” for the purpose of the study. The students brains were then scanned in an MRI machine while they watched a series of video clips specifically chosen to evoke a range of different emotions.

The researchers examined data from 80 separate regions of their brains and compared responses. What they found was that the brain responses from pairs of “friends” were more alike than those of “non-friends.” In addition, the more similar their neural responses to the video stimuli, the closer they were in terms of their social network. Even after correcting for age, gender, and other controls, the correlations remained.

What does this study tell us about the nature of friendship and the people with whom we choose to surround ourselves? Do you find yourself seeking out more like-minded friends or are you more of the “opposites attract” mindset? Could this data be used to predict whether two strangers could potentially be friends?

Guest:

Carolyn Parkinson, assistant professor of social psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study “Similar neural responses predict friendship” (Nature Communications, January 2018)