Science & Technology

Friends share something even deeper than secrets: brainwaves

A recent study published in Nature Communications reveals that friends tend to have similar brain wave patterns. It was already known that friends who are similar tend to gravitate toward
one another.

Besides the common phrase “birds of a feather flock together,” there is a scientific term for this phenomenon: homophily. This affinity for people of similar age, gender, ethnicity, economic background, religion, education level and even handgrip strength has been known for a long time. Though this fact of life has been widely accepted, scientists were unsure of the origin of this affinity. A group of researchers led by Dr. Carolyn Parkinson of the University of California, Los Angeles set out to answer this question.

The group conducted the study by first isolating a class of 279 graduate students from an unnamed university. These students were asked to report who they were friends with in order to draw up a social network illustrating varying levels of connectivity.

The students were then asked if they would like to participate in a brain-scanning study. Of the original 279, 42 people agreed. These students were then placed in a fMRI machine to track their blood flow as they watched a set of videos. This set of videos ranged from music videos to mockumentaries to comedy clips to weddings to an astronaut demonstrating the effect of low gravity on water. The results of the fMRI scans were then compared to the results of the first survey of connectivity.

The study found that blood in the brains of people watching the videos flowed in a similar way as it did in the brains of their friends, indicating the same neural pathway. This was significant, even when accounting for other aspects that might have influenced their neural pathway such as religion, ethnicity and family income. This meant that they had less social distance between each other.

The researchers specifically isolated two particular brain regions that were good indicators of social connectivity. The first was the nucleus accumbens, one of the areas of the brain responsible for activating its reward system. The second was the superior parietal lobule, which is the area of the brain associated with allocation of attention to the external environment.

Using the results, Parkinson and her fellow researchers developed an algorithm to predict the level of social connectivity a dyad would exhibit based on the results of their fMRIs. This algorithm proved to work beyond the threshold of chance. Though this was a conclusive study that proved that friends tend to have similar brain waves, it still did not answer the question of what these brain waves
actually conveyed.

Regardless, the researchers wondered what the results would be if they had done their study backward. They would scan the students watching the videos before the semester even began, implying  they did not know each other yet. They would expect to see that the people who showed similar results on their fMRI scans would then become close friends.

In response to the study, Jayne Chen, a Baruch freshman pursuing a degree in political science, said that she was not exactly surprised because “studies on old couples show that the longer that they are together, the more [they] begin to think like [their significant others], speak like them, mirror their actions.” She also mentioned that peoples’ surroundings and experiences shape them and that their friends are another part of that.

This study comes alongside a wave of research on friendship. Recent research has suggested that friendship has a poisonous effect on the human body and mind, as bad at least as obesity, hypertension, unemployment, lack of exercise and smoking cigarettes.

Meanwhile, other research indicates that people with strong social ties tend to have lower fibrinogen levels, with fibrinogen being a protein that causes the kind of chronic inflammation seen at the advent of many diseases.

Though the results seem nebulous at best, research is still being conducted on this topic, shedding even more light on the ever-important world of social interaction.

Ali Hussain

Ali Hussain

Ali Hussain regularly contributes to the Science and Technology section. In his free time, he likes to explore writing prompts on Reddit, read short stories, religious history and books on neuroscience and play "Paladins." Of all the countries on his list of places to go, his No. 1 is Morocco.
Ali Hussain
May 7, 2018

About Author

Ali Hussain Ali Hussain regularly contributes to the Science and Technology section. In his free time, he likes to explore writing prompts on Reddit, read short stories, religious history and books on neuroscience and play "Paladins." Of all the countries on his list of places to go, his No. 1 is Morocco.


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