The signature of friendship

Does “friendship” make a signature in our brains? Friends are those who are not our family but with whom we share “lifepieces” and for whom we feel so strongly, that they might as well be. When we think of our friends, these are the usual reasons why we are such: we belong to the same generation, we have the same gender, attend the same school, or we live near each other. These are also the reasons that have been found in studies on what engenders friendships. But when we consider someone our close friend, we know that it is because of deeper reasons other than the circumstances of our birth. What could it be?

A recently published study on the similarity of brainwork between friends showed that it just maybe the signature of friendship deep in our brains. In it, they found that people who were more closely bound in friendship showed similar brain patterns when showed the same set of stimuli. This is compared to the brain patterns of people who were showed the same set of stimuli but who were not as closely related in friendship to each other. The stimuli consist of a variety of videos that could elicit a range of reactions and which would register in the brain as blood flow. They looked at 80 nooks and crannies in the brain as these videos were shown and indeed, it showed that the closer the people were in friendship, the more similar their brain patterns were.

This enriches what we know about why we are closer to some of our friends than we are with others. The brains of best friends are strikingly in synch when they perceive, interpret and respond to the world. This is something that we all feel with friends in our closest circle. This may explain why you and a close friend whom you do not see as often as you used to, would continue to be close and you feel this when you are catching up and referring to the same subject matter and share your responses to them. It could also perhaps explain why people who come from very different backgrounds and even generations, could be close friends.

The study does not know if the signature of friendship in our brains is the cause or effect of friendships. They just know they are there and that similarity of brain patterns reacting to meaningful stimuli is a good predictor of how close people are in friendship. Revelations like the one in the said study are important because they show what is hidden from us when we connect with others. If anything, we are human because we fundamentally need other humans. And to learn about what drives our behavior as we relate to others, I think would be empowering.

And I am guessing, that when close friends are exchanging stories with each other, their brains are also in synch. This is what neuroscientist Uri Hasson found in his work. He is a Princeton scientist who investigates what really goes on in our brains in natural situations. In his TED Talk on how brain patterns synch during storytelling, he found that choice of words or somehow the hype of presentation do not matter as much as the meaning we convey when we tell stories. We humans somehow have a “code for meaning” and we tune into that, Hasson said. In fact, he also found that the brains of the listener and the storyteller synch and the better they communicate, the stronger the synching is.

People who are friends and those who communicate better have similar brain patters. People who are friends and who communicate better always find common ground. I have a circle of best friends. We are all very different from each other in terms of personalities. But we always find common ground, and we all are aware of how different we all are and how these differences make us form a better, more expansive picture of life and its possibilities.

But I think this study is far more important because we know that cooperation is far more possible among friends than those who are not. The world bears it out and scientific studies bear this out. So if we want a better, kinder, more cooperative world, how do we synch our brains with those who are NOT are friends, and even with those whom we consider our enemies?

In one episode of National Geographic’s "The Story of Us," host Morgan Freeman spent time talking to a woman who belonged to a cult who hated gays, Jews, Muslims, and a host of other identities. Their cult was going all over the US telling everyone that they are sure that they represented God. Morgan Freeman at some point asked her: “You really thought that your cult of 8 members was right and about 7 other billon people are wrong?”. The woman went on to tell her story that she eventually encountered a Jewish man, one she was taught to hate, who engaged her with kindness and made her reconsider what she was fighting for. They became friends and she eventually left the cult and opened herself up to the fact that people can be different and still have common ground to respect each other.

I also saw two very moving TED Talks on the power of forgiveness. In one of the talks,  two men, Plez Felix and Azim Khamisa, talked about how the grandson of one of them killed the only son of the other, and how they consciously sought each other to move onThe other talk featured two mothers, Aicha el-Wafi and Phyllis Rodriguez, who lost their sons in the September 2011 bombing of the World Trade Center in different ways. One son took part in the attack, while the other was a victim of the bombing. But they also sought each other, open to seek common ground and to forgive.

What would the brain pattern of forgiveness look like as it approaches and seals a friendship?  That is the signature I want to see so that we would know how to navigate through our complex animosities toward each other. We already know, without having to do research that one of the easiest things to do and to be is to understand and stick with people whose views are similar to ours. But to feed only that tendency obviously does not work for a better world because the world is, borrowing from artist Leonard Cohen, made up of enormously different “broken pieces” that somehow fit and make up the world we love. We have got to connect and find a way, even if we all seem to think the other is “broken” or “more broken” than we are.

How do we now work to mark our brains with the signature of understanding and forgiveness that make for unlikely friendships? That is the brain signature I want to see. –