The (Neuro-)Anatomy of Friendship 10th June 2022 7:00pm – 8:00pm

One final misunderstanding has more to do with the philosophy of science. Evolution and biology are sometimes castigated for being post hoc descriptions of the world rather than theoretically driven sciences like physics.

  • Robin Dunbar (Evolution: What everyone needs to know)

Evolution has played a key role in what we are today. This makes it important for cognitive scientists to take into account evolutionary psychology and its underpinnings for a comprehensive understanding of human thought and behaviour. For the latest session of CogTalk on 10th June, Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences hosted Prof. Robin Dunbar from University of Oxford, an exemplary scholar in the field of Evolutionary Psychology, renowned for his Dunbar’s Number (the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships).

Human beings are social animals. There is heavy evidence to suggest that the number and quality of these social relationships predict our physical and mental well-being. Although the definition of being social has evolved with time, our tendency to be social has not digressed much from our ancestors – the apes. The social brain hypothesis offers an explanation, says Prof Dunbar – primates’ larger brains enable them to live in larger, complex societies. As the neocortex ratio increases, it contributes to increasing bondedness, complexity and cognition among mammals. These factors place Dunbar’s number for human beings at 150, i.e., the limit for the natural size of social groups amongst humans. Interestingly, this number has stood the test of cultural differences, type of event, and even the booming age of internet and social networking.

This number seems pretty small considering the average guest list for an Indian wedding goes far beyond 150. However, Dunbar’s limit takes into account the layered structure of our social bonds. He beautifully categorises relationships that we come across in our lifetime, from our very intimate bonds -spouse/romantic partners and best friends- to our family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and even celebrities, based on the extent to which we would indulge in interactions with them. Social-networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc have helped people keep in touch, yet Prof Dunbar shares that according to a study, the average number of people you interact with or talk over phone on a regular basis still hovers around 150-200.

The two components that form the basis of bonding -emotional and cognitive- contribute towards the stability of any bond by increasing the level of endorphins in our body, creating a sense of intimacy and stimulating our immune system. We are in a world where forming friendships seems like the least of troubles. In a fast-moving life, the trick is maintaining relationships over long periods. Lasting friendships seem to share a commonality – they occur between people sharing similar mentalities and requirements out of the bond. There could be multiple factors holding the relationship together, be it endogenous traits such as coming from the same culture, being of the same age group, sharing similar personalities, or even exogenous traits such as similar educational backgrounds, common political and religious views, similar taste in music, speaking the same language/dialect, or even a relatable sense of humour, exclaims Prof Dunbar. This explains why our friend-circle changes from time-to-time in a given lifespan. Those whose interests and preferences evolved similar to ours, seem to stay the longest. However, does this homophily indicate an innate self-centeredness that we look for ourselves in others as well? Prof Dunbar explains that homophily is just an easier way out. We are innately tuned to seek our in-group and be wary of an out-group. In increasingly metropolitan cities however, we choose to look inwards for warmth and comfort and hence the preference for familiarity over novelty. It could merely be a strategy to begin with and not a thumb-rule of forming friendships.

In a very lively discourse that followed, Prof Mishra talked about the social networking paradox: how despite taking communication to its pinnacle, social media has made people lonelier. According to Prof Dunbar, choosing friendships that can cater to our cognitive needs is the key. Indeed, one needs to know who engages in what kind of conversations and where one could find them. Further he says,

“To make a friend out of somebody, you have to find somebody who also wants a friend and is therefore prepared to give you time. If you go and try and be a friend with someone who already has a full address book, all their time is already busily spent with friends and family. They can only fit you in if they drop somebody else.”

The hard reality is that not all of us get to be amidst a social group always. Prof Mishra shared an interesting observation about cell-mates who are deprived of societal stimulation being put in solitary-cells, yet they seem to have found comfort in leading their lives. The most convenient explanation according to Prof Dunbar is Adaptability. “Friends are not really Nirvana”; living alone need not cripple people but it does seem to have an effect on their social skills. He quotes covid research to support how friendships took a hit during lockdown. It has also been observed that there exist gender differences in how social-distance changed friendships. An interesting question was posed to Prof Dunbar from the audience about what is innately different in the genders that brings about these differences. The differences arise as a consequence of many factors, he says. The value women give to conversations to maintain relationships and the intimacy that they share with their best friends, are different from men. Women personalise their friendships which changes how they maintain them. “Unfortunately, we only get one perspective at a time (either that of a male or a female)”.

As complex as relationships may be, they are an evolutionary asset to human beings. They uplift our mood and enhance our overall well-being and in order to maintain them it is important that we invest time in them. The decay can be faster in friendships, compared to family, over very long periods (months) of no contact. We are constantly interacting with people at different levels and they shape our thoughts, perspectives and consequently behaviour. What’s interesting is that our social behaviour kicks in very early; a baby as old as a few months understands the target of our gaze, displays sharing behaviour when amongst other kids. Hence, what determines how we build and maintain these social relationships is a question worth exploring any day.

Contributed by Ms. Aswini Madhira, Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences

The complete video can be viewed at: