It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“Researchers are suggesting that there is a link between the number of friends you have and the size of the region of the brain — known as the orbital prefrontal cortex — that is found just above the eyes. A new study shows that this brain region is bigger in people who have a larger number of friendships.” (“Brain Size May Determine Whether You Are Good at Keeping Friends”; Sciencedaily.com 2/24/2012)
We already knew that the size of the human brain is related to the size of our social networks. According to The Dunbar Number, humans can maintain about 150 relationships at one time. That’s relationships, not friendships. It includes the people you might see on the street, chat with, and know how they fit into your life.
This new research says that the size of an individual’s orbital prefrontal cortex is directly related to how many friends she can hold on to. I’m not going to lie, the brain research is sometimes over my head. (Aagh! Pun! Not intended!) But the gist is that to maintain a lot of pals we need to be able to understand how other people think, and the bigger the frontal lobe, the better we are at that mind-reading, or “mentalising” as the researchers call it.
Here’s how Robin Dunbar, who is also the brain behind this latest study, explains it: “‘Mentalising’ is where one individual is able to follow a natural hierarchy involving other individuals’ mind states. For example, in the play ‘Othello’, Shakespeare manages to keep track of five separate mental states: he intended that his audience believes that Iago wants Othello to suppose that Desdemona loves Cassio. Being able to maintain five separate individuals’ mental states is the natural upper limit for most adults.’”
Here’s what I’m wondering: Now that we know the specific social skill (mentalising) that contributes to someone having a lot of friends, can a person work on that skill? Can she strengthen it if she wants to be able to keep more pals? Or does the size of the frontal lobe determine your mentalising ability, and that’s that?
It’s unclear from the research. What we know is this: “The size of your brain determines your social skills, and it is these that allow you to have many friends,” or, as Dunbar said, “there is a link between the ability to read how other people think and social network size.”
All of which is to say one thing: Want more friends? Work on your mind-reading. Tall order.