Do we see the world as our friends do?

Recently we showed that the brains of friends respond in remarkably similar ways. Click on the New York Times article to learn more.

 

For a video by Hank Green (@SciShow) about our study, click here.  And you can find the scientific paper, here. 

This made us wonder what makes our brains more similar to some people rather than others?  Do we find people who see the world the way we do or do we become more similar the more we spend time together or is it a bit of both?  What makes some conversations magical and effortless and others feel like a hard uphill slog?  What actually IS clicking?  We are exploring all of these questions in the lab and in connection with collaborators Carolyn Parkinson (since graduated from the lab and now an Assistant Professor at UCLA) and Adam Kleinbaum (Professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business).  

Why do we call our dearest friends "close"?  

 "Far" objects and pictures of acquaintances activated a similar brain pattern . Near objects and close friends showed a different pattern.

"Far" objects and pictures of acquaintances activated a similar brain pattern . Near objects and close friends showed a different pattern.

In our first empirical paper on this topic, we tested whether the brain understands social familiarity as a kind of distance -- an idea first conceived of by Liberman & Trope (2008).  This idea is consistent with the way we talk about friendship (a "close" friend, my boyfriend seems "distant", etc). We wanted to know whether these metaphors are a linguistic accident or whether they might echo a common neural machinery. That is, does our brain literally map out friendship?  We found that the same neural pattern evoked by seeing something physically near is also activated when you see a close friend.  Far objects evoke a different pattern that is similar to when a person sees an acquaintance.

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

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

This effect also extends to concepts of time: "a few seconds from now" evoked a pattern similar to the pattern for near objects; "twenty years from now" evoked 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 on 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

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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 automatically when we see someone we know.  

how to win friends and influence people

How do people influence each other? 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 conversation and who in a group has the most "pull" -- aligning others' brains to their own.

measuring mental COUPLING in real time

Another way to think about connection is the colloquial description of "clicking" -- why do we find some conversations effortless and others effortful?  We know it when we experience it, but what makes it so? To find out, Sophie Wohltjen and Emma Templeton are analyzing hundreds of natural conversations.  Adam Boncz is using hyperscanning (two people scanned at the same time, during interaction) to measure collective brain patterns -- patterns that emerge across brains when minds connect.