Brain scans reveal that friends really are on the same wavelength

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 14 Mar 2018

LOS ANGELES: What can an astronaut, baby sloths, a sentimental music video and an MRI scanner reveal about your friends? Quite a lot, a new study reveals.

Researchers put 42 business school students in an MRI machine and showed them a series of 14 videos. As they watched the clips, the scanner recorded the activity in their brains.

Those patterns could be used to predict which students were friends and which were merely classmates, according to a study published recently in the journal Nature Communications.

“Neural similarity was associated with a dramatically increased likelihood of friendship,” the team from the University of California, Los Angeles and Dartmouth College reported.

“These results suggest that we are exceptionally similar to our friends in how we perceive and respond to the world around us,” they added.

The researchers, led by UCLA social psychologist Carolyn Parkinson, started with an entire cohort of students from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

All 279 of them were asked whether they were friends with each of their fellow students. (A “friend” was defined as someone you’d go out with for a drink, a meal, a movie or other “informal social activities”.)

If two students named each other, they were considered friends for the purposes of the study. Researchers used those responses to reconstruct the social network of the business school class.

In the next phase of the study, 42 of the students agreed to lie in a functional MRI scanner while they watched videos for 36 minutes.

The clips ranged in length from 88 seconds to more than five minutes, and were chosen to evoke a range of emotions in viewers.

For instance, a music video for the song All I Want was added to the reel because some people might consider it “sweet” while others would see it as “sappy”, the researchers explained.

One of the clips presented a debate on whether college football should be banned; another featured a discussion about a speech by former President Barack Obama.

The reel also included video from a gay wedding, a presentation by an astronaut on the International Space Station showing what happens when you wring out a washcloth in space, a documentary about a baby sloth sanctuary and highlights from a soccer match, among other things.

While the students watched, the scanner recorded the responses of 80 separate regions of their brains. Then the researchers compared the responses of each student with the responses of every other student.

Sure enough, the responses of friend pairs were more alike than the responses of nonfriend pairs.

The study results offer a new type of scientific proof that “people tend to be friends with individuals who see the world in a similar way”, the researchers concluded.

But the results don’t resolve this fundamental mystery about friendship: Do we become friends with people who already see the world the way we do, or do we come to see the world through our friends’ eyes? – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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