On Saturday I attended the TEDx Observer event. One of the talks really stood out for me. Not just because the presenter was cool enough to have a number named after him, but because what he said induced the satisfying glow that comes when proper science fleshes out the skeleton of what our common sense tells us must be true.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar convincingly shows the vast majority of us have 150 people in our circle of acquaintance. This is true if we look at the average number of Christmas cards sent by people in the UK, or at hunter-gatherer communities in Papua New Guinea. Indeed Facebook’s own user statistics across all 800,000 Facebook accounts show that the average number of Facebook friends hits the Dunbar number spot on.
However, where do we draw the line between acquaintances and friends? For those of us who’ve ever worried about whether we do enough to stay in touch with those close to us, Dunbar also has consoling news. He argues persuasively that most of us simply lack the cognitive capacity to maintain more than about five people in our inner circle of real friends and confidants. Indeed, recent brain imaging studies have shown that those gregarious individuals who are able to juggle more than five very close friendships actually need to increase the size of regions of the prefrontal cortex which are required for maintaining social interactions.
Of course, like many of these studies, it is difficult to separate cause and effect, but it is impressive to see that something so seemingly ethereal as the size of someone’s social network is physically encoded in their brain’s structure.
So what can we learn from this that can help us to maintain more friendships of higher quality?
Unsurprisingly the time factor is crucial. You may share common histories and important memories, but sustaining and nurturing true friendships in the present requires time and effort. Secondly, there is significant evidence that talking to people face-to-face, even via Skype, is much more satisfying than text, email and Facebook. This in itself isn’t surprising – as human’s we respond to visual cues that can never be replaced by emoticons. Thirdly, you should consider what you do with your friends. Here, what pops out of Dunbar’s studies is that men and women use rather different strategies to nurture their friendships. Women really do benefit from extended and repeated communication (2/3 of time spent on Facebook each day is by females), while men get a lot more out of doing an activity. Amazingly the average man actually rate their friendships as deteriorating when they talk more to their friends! Finally, however we’re interacting with our friends, if we can work laughter into the equation then we’re much more likely to cement that bond. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins in our brains. Not only are these natural opiates somewhat addictive, but they also dull pain and play a crucial role in social bonding.
So, go out and make friends, but remember these simple tips. If you want female friends then talk to them, if you want to bond with a man suggest an activity. In all cases lubricate your interactions with laughter. And remember, if you’re trying to net that “special friend”, it comes with a sting in the tail. People in relationships tend to pay for their new partner by losing at least one close friend. Whether this comes with a shrinking of the prefrontal cortex remains to be determined.
Dr Ben Martynoga is a neuroscientist at National Institute of Medical Research.
The School of Life’s runs a regular class on How To Be A Better Friend. Details are here.