[Science Solitaire] Pandemic friendships forever (PFFs)

Did you notice anything about your friendships amid this worldwide crisis? Did they shrink or expand? Did they stay at first-order “how are you’s” or did they deepen? Did they keep you alive? 

In each of our heads, we carry about one quadrillion connections (“1” followed by 15 “0s”) between brain cells called “neurons.” Those sparks or connections shape how or even when we think, feel, and behave. Thoughts, feelings, and behavior are most often about, for, or with someone or groups of people. In that sense, each human brain is connected to the quadrillion tapestry of connections of another. We have invisible but irrefutable connections with each other. Cut those connections and we breach our own nature. 

This is why this pandemic is also psychologically brutal. It has forced those connections to be confined to a limited number and “special” (online) ways through which you can reach them. Those connections formed part of how we have stayed alive and whole before this pandemic, and now they need to be reconfigured in major ways at least while the pandemic is still on. (READ: 9 in 10 Filipinos 'stressed' with coronavirus pandemic – SWS)

In 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic happened, we did not know much about how our bodies, including how our brains, worked. But this time, we know so much more, which is why there have been widespread effort to address the psychological issues brought about by fear, isolation, and desperation, to name only a few. Scientists studying the brains of children have long established that how we cope with crisis as adults have a lot to do with how we were as children. 

When you are born, each neuron has a set “mission” to be connected to another “neuron.” Two major “islands” in your brain where this needs to happen are your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex. 

Your amygdala is basically your “reaction center” generator of raw emotions like fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and joy (other scientists argue that there are more) which make for knee-jerk reactions. When you are born, those neurons are primed to eventually connect with the neurons in your pre-frontal cortex – the one that checks these impulses in terms of their reasonability. The pre-frontal cortex basically squares your raw emotions and reactions with real-world scenarios and possibilities before you act them out in the world. 

When things like traumatic events happen and these connections are interrupted or fail, then you are most likely to have difficulty in your adult life to cope with certain things, especially those that recruit negative emotions. How we cultivate, maintain, and deepen our friendships have a lot to do with how these connections are happening or not happening in our heads. 

But even if you had a childhood where you did not have a family who helped you form those robust connections, you are not doomed to isolation. This is why friends are essential in your life, because they keep you alive in the deepest sense. They could help you forge these connections even if it is harder to do that as adults compared to when we were children.

Just think of your best friends now and you will suddenly feel very grateful. The joy, help, and incomparable learnings we gain from our friendships are also biologically matched by the “stress-busting” hormones that friendships stimulate, helping our immune systems and even helping us live longer. 

Some scientists theorize on the number of friendships we can actually “contain” in our heads. One of the more famous and recent ones is the number “150” by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. This “150” is spread in concentric circles with the innermost one holding just 5 people, followed by next layers of “15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances), and 1,500 (people you can recognize).” This is not a fixed configuration as people can permeate other circles but the assigned numbers in the circles more or less remain consistent. (READ: How to find happiness in a pandemic)

He based this on his studies of our non-human primate relatives, looking at the size of their brains, relative to the body, homing in on the size of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with thinking and language linking it to the size of a cohesive social group. This ratio seems to strongly influence the size of the social circles we can manage. He looked at early hunter-gatherers and later groupings in offices, campsites, and even Christmas card lists and found this number to hold. Later studies like this one looking at mobile phone use generally confirms the stability of this number as well.

Thinking about the kinds of friendships I had before the pandemic and now, I am exponentially grateful to my friends, who, in their largely “virtual” presences, made my real life possible, enriched now, and hopeful for a post-pandemic better normal.  

If “150” is the working number of friendships for humans, how did your concentric circle of “150” change before the pandemic and now? – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.