The Hard Facts: It’s All In Your Head

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”; 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.



Filed under The Search

13 responses to “The Hard Facts: It’s All In Your Head

  1. Christina

    IMHO… that study just shows that that there physiological differences in brain structure between introverts and extroverts. Since personality traits are considered to be changeable to some degree… it would be interesting to know if the brain structure changes as one adds or loses social connections.

    Since it has been proven, that the brain re-wires itself when new tasks are learned, it seems entirely possible to me that brain might also change with the addition/deletion of social connections too.

  2. This is so interesting! WOW! so happy I have come across this! I tell you, I am on a roll this morning for great blogs to follow!

    Sometimes I feel like I have too many friends and some of those friendships suffer because I feel like I have so many! It all seems overwhelming!

    Thanks for this though!

  3. That is so interesting!! I wonder if someone were to have a stroke, if they would be able to rebuild that part of their brain if they start engaging in “friendly” activities again. It’s just so amazing how the body works! It would also be interesting to see if they did a study where they kept someone away from their friends for a few months to see if that part of the brain would diminish in size considerably. That would be a sad study though, who wants to be away from their friends at all?

  4. Great information. So interesting. It makes sense though, to have heightened sensitivity to the needs of others would make you seem more likable.

  5. This is a conversation tat has always been on the mantle with my wife and I. I tend to have and enjoy friends – both men and women. My wife, on the other hand, does not. Well, none that she talks about. But, she really doesn’t talk that much.

  6. Jen

    I have no research to back it up, but I totally think “mentalising,” like any other skill, is one that can be practiced and improved upon. My husband shared some interesting info from a book called Talent Is Overrated where studies indicated that contrary to popular belief, practicing a skill can lead to mastery of the same level as people believed to be “born great” at something – music, art, chess! So I see no reason why we can’t practice to develop our friend skills! 🙂

    • This is exactly what my question was going to be – are there exercises we can do to grow this area of our brain if we find it difficult to make friends? I have always had difficulty making friends & since we have moved 3 provinces in the last 15 years, it’s even more difficult. I would love to have a friend I could talk to, go for coffee with, confide in & listen to but it seems to be very hard for me to make this kind of friend. Maybe I should get this book & try learning to make friends.

  7. Wow! Neurobiology and neuropsychology are two of the most fascinating areas, in my opinion. My late sister had Aspberger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. She was intellectually brilliant but had very poor social skills and a definite disability in understanding/reading others’ emotional states. Ever watch “The Big Bang Theory”? My sister was a female Sheldon. Just amazing that someone can be a genius in some areas and so disabled in others.

  8. yablogtherapy

    Fascinating post but I wonder if it is the region that determines the number of friends we have or whether learning social skills and maintaining relationships assists in the growth of the region.

  9. Waoh! Now, this is an interesting research! I’m totally amazed.
    Plus I totally agree with your last line, the greater your ability to read minds, the more friends you tend to have.
    Thanks for sharing:)

  10. cb117

    hm so apparently I lost a part of my brain when I moved to a different state/city and this loss is irreversible because I am finding it more difficult than ever before to find and make friends here.
    Maybe a lobotomy is in order.

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