This Is Your Brain on Friendship

Close relationships are so important that your friends are—neuroscientifically speaking—like pieces of yourself.
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Our brains respond quite dramatically when we are detecting a potential threat of physical pain, and these researchers have already demonstrated that neural activity under threat of shock varies quite dramatically when we are alone, with a stranger or with a lover. In this new study, the researchers discovered a very interesting phenomenon: The brain responds the same way when our friends are threatened. Results showed that the participants’ brains blurred the distinction between self and other with friends, but not with strangers. Brain mapping showed a very high correlation between the neural responses in the threat-to-self and the threat-to-friend conditions, but no such correlations between the threat-to-self and threat-to-stranger condition.

What is more, the paper goes on to show that the strength of the association between self- and friend-threat conditions depends on the degree to which participants’ rated themselves as close and interconnected to their friend. From this finding, the authors concluded that, “threat-responsive regions of the brain are capable of representing others in a manner that is very similar to the way they represent the self but tend to do so only to the extent that those others are perceived as familiar.” In other words, as far as your brain is concerned, when a close friend is in danger, it’s as if the danger were targeted at you.

When our friends are under the threat of shock, we experience that threat as real and meaningful. This is the neural basis of empathy. This is why we hurt when our friends hurt. This is also why we hurt when we lose our friends, family and lovers. Put simply, our brains and minds are organized in a manner that is deeply interconnected with the experiences of others. This may be the very essence of being human.

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Where does all of this leave us? What is the take-home message of all this work? I see two big lessons here. First, this research reminds us that the feeling of losing a part of ourselves—a part of how we represent the world—is indeed real. This does not mean that you cannot recover what is lost, but is does confirm that the loss is real. It takes time to recover, and the building of new relationships (or the rekindling of old ones) may be the way forward. When Jerry Maguire said, “You complete me,” he probably had no idea how true that was.

Second, the idea of a social brain is very real. We depend on others to process complex information about the world, and our emotional states are intertwined with the emotional states of our friends, families and lovers.

When you stop to think about it, this idea is pretty radical. Our brains are not designed to process information exclusively about “me” but instead wired to process information about “us” (whoever the “us” might be). For me, the upshot of this finding is that cultivating high quality relationships may be one of the most important things we can do to survive and thrive in this complex world.

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2 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Friendship

  1. That’s great! I am very happy to read about this wonderful concept. Friendship is an amazing relationship between two or more individuals. We should be 100% sincere in that relationship. Otherwise it will be broken within few days or month. It should be a lifelong attachment.

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