Brain Scans Predicting Social Bonds

Brain Scans Predicting Social Bonds April 20, 2018

This was a fascinating article from the New York Times that looks at the predictive power of brain scans.

New research suggests the roots of friendship extend even deeper than previously suspected. Scientists have found that the brains of close friends respond in remarkably similar ways as they view a series of short videos: the same ebbs and swells of attention and distraction, the same peaking of reward processing here, boredom alerts there.

The neural response patterns evoked by the videos — on subjects as diverse as the dangers of college football, the behavior of water in outer space, and Liam Neeson trying his hand at improv comedy — proved so congruent among friends, compared to patterns seen among people who were not friends, that the researchers could predict the strength of two people’s social bond based on their brain scans alone.

“I was struck by the exceptional magnitude of similarity among friends,” said Carolyn Parkinson, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The results “were more persuasive than I would have thought.” Dr. Parkinson and her colleagues, Thalia Wheatley and Adam M. Kleinbaum of Dartmouth College, reported their results in Nature Communications.

“I think it’s an incredibly ingenious paper,” said Nicholas Christakis, author of “Connected: The Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our World” and a biosociologist at Yale University. “It suggests that friends resemble each other not just superficially, but in the very structures of their brains.”…

The researchers started with a defined social network: an entire class of 279 graduate students at an unnamed university widely known among neuroscientists to have been the Dartmouth School of Business.

The students, who all knew one another and in many cases lived in dorms together, were asked to fill out questionnaires. Which of their fellow students did they socialize with — share meals and go to a movie with, invite into their homes? From that survey the researchers mapped out a social network of varying degrees of connectivity: friends, friends of friends, third-degree friends, friends of Kevin Bacon.

The students were then asked to participate in a brain scanning study and 42 agreed. As an fMRI device tracked blood flow in their brains, the students watched a series of video clips of varying lengths, an experience that Dr. Parkinson likened to channel surfing with somebody else in control of the remote….

Analyzing the scans of the students, Dr. Parkinson and her colleagues found strong concordance between blood flow patterns — a measure of neural activity — and the degree of friendship among the various participants, even after controlling for other factors that might explain similarities in neural responses, like ethnicity, religion or family income.

The researchers identified particularly revealing regions of pattern concordance among friends, notably in the nucleus accumbens, in the lower forebrain, which is key to reward processing, and in the superior parietal lobule, located toward the top and the back of the brain — roughly at the position of a man bun — where the brain decides how to allocate attention to the external environment.

Using the results, the researchers were able train a computer algorithm to predict, at a rate well above chance, the social distance between two people based on the relative similarity of their neural response patterns.

Dr. Parkinson emphasized that the study was a “first pass, a proof of concept,” and that she and her colleagues still don’t know what the neural response patterns mean: what attitudes, opinions, impulses or mental thumb-twiddling the scans may be detecting.

They plan next to try the experiment in reverse: to scan incoming students who don’t yet know one another and see whether those with the most congruent neural patterns end up becoming good friends.

Of course, there are so very many brain studies now that shed light on human behaviour in such a way that I feel humanity is being mapped inside as well as out. Our understanding of behaviour is being understood in ways it never previously has been. An interesting frontier! Of course, these sorts of data have an impact on discussions of free will and the supervenience of the mental on the physical.


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