In our newest line of research we are exploring how people connect with and influence each other.  We are investigating this question in a few different ways:  exploring how we connect within larger networks, developing metrics to measure "clicking" between people, and exploring how other people change the way we think.  All of these investigations demand multiple methods including neuroimaging, psychophysics, behavioral studies and large-scale social network analysis.  Here is a summary of some of our recent and current projects.

SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS:  How we know our friends

In our first empirical paper on this topic, we tested whether the brain understands social familiarity as a kind of egocentric distance -- an idea first conceived of by Liberman & Trope (2008).  This idea is certainly consistent with the way we talk about friendship (a "close" friend, he is becoming "distant"). We wanted to know whether these metaphors are a linguistic accident or whether they might echo a common neural machinery. That is, do our brains understand relatively modern concepts like friendship by repurposing an ancient computation that evolved to map physical space? We trained a computer to recognize brain patterns involved in processing near and far distances and then tested that computer on brain patterns evoked when seeing photographs of loved ones and acquaintances. Merely learning the brain patterns for "near" and "far" physical distances, allowed the computer to accurately sort the photographs into friend and acquaintance categories.  This is consistent with the brain repurposing ancient spatial computations to literally map out the social world.  Read the related theory paper here.

 

The "far trial" photo (above) links to a National Geographic article about this studyPhoto: Marian Berryhill

The "far trial" photo (above) links to a National Geographic article about this studyPhoto: Marian Berryhill

Classification of distance, across space, time, and social contexts, was discovered in the right inferior parietal lobe (rIPL).

Classification of distance, across space, time, and social contexts, was discovered in the right inferior parietal lobe (rIPL).

We also found that this effect extends to time words as well ("a few seconds from now" evoked a pattern similar to the pattern for near objects; "twenty years from now" evokes a pattern similar to that for far-away objects). The computer did not need to be trained on physical (spatial) distances to get these results -- training in any of the three domains (space, time, social) lead to accurate classification of near vs far in the other domains.

ONGOING RESEARCH:

The Neural basis of social networks

Navigating the social world not only relies upon discriminating friends from acquaintances, but on knowing how other people in our networks connect to each other (e.g., Who are the well-connected "social hubs"?  Who connects diverse groups of people ("social bridges"?).  We found that the brain really cares about where people sit in our larger social network -- so much so that it activates this information immediately as soon as we see a person we know.  

Do we see the world as our friends do?

To answer this question, we scanned (fMRI) people from a large social network while they watched many short video clips. These clips included political views, comedy bits, science footage and music videos. We found that friends have remarkably similar neural activity compared to friends-of-friends who, in turn, have more similar neural activity than people who are only friends-of-friends-of-friends.  Is this effect due to friends "finding each other" or do people become more similar over time or a bit of both?  Carolyn Parkinson, at UCLA, is spearheading this follow-up study with us now. 

how to win friends and influence people

How do people influence each others thoughts? And what individuals are more likely to have an outsized influence on getting other people to align to their way of thinking?    Beau Sievers is exploring these questions in a study that uses neuroimaging to measure how brains align due to social influence.

measuring mental COUPLING

Another way to think about connection is the colloquial description of "clicking" -- why do we find some conversations effortless and fun while others seem hard-going?  We know it when we experience it, but what makes it happen?  Sophie Wohltjen and Emma Templeton are collecting behavioral and physiological data to find out.  Adam Boncz is using hyperscanning (two people scanned at the same time, during conversation) to measure the emergent patterns that form when two minds align.