We need friendship – the brain demands it!


Four smilling friends lying with their heads together“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” – Aristotle

Do you ever feel down if you haven’t seen your mates for a while, or that a tough situation seems impossible to deal with until you’ve spoken to a friend about it? The answer is more than likely yes, and there’s good reason for this that takes us deep into the workings of our brain!

Continuing with this month’s theme of friends, including our campaign to celebrate the good eggs in our lives and because we’ve just enjoyed Brain Awareness Week, I wanted to look at how two of my favourite topics, friends and the brain, are closely connected.

When we have good friends in our lives we are often happier, healthier and less stressed and that’s because of how our brain works. As humans we rely on friends for our sense of identity, our outlook on the world and the ability to empathize. This is why we feel so much better with good connections in our lives.

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘us’: We depend on others to process complex information about the world around us. Our emotional states are intertwined with the emotional states of our friends, families and lovers, therefore these social connections and close relationships affect how we define ourselves and how we come to know who we are as a person.

Neural connections - brain wiringOur brains are not designed to process information exclusively about ‘me’ but instead are wired to process information about ‘us’. This is one reason why as humans we look to build close circles of friends and want to belong to groups we feel comfortable in and valued by. Our emotional (and physical) health depends on it!

Empathy, the foundation of friendship: When we hang out with good friends or click with someone new, the brain, helped by mirror neurons, generates feelings of empathy.   These firing neurons respond to what we see an individual doing or experiencing; they activate the same parts of our brain being activated in theirs, so we also experience how they might be feeling, what they might be thinking and how they might react. They are the neural basis for empathy that helps to create a bond between two people.

The ability to empathize is one of the most meaningful parts of being a human as it is the quality that differentiates us from computers and robots! Our brains are hardwired to empathize because we associate the people close to us with ourselves; this has been part of the evolutionary process.

I feel your pain: You know your brain will protect you and will respond dramatically when it detects a potential threat of pain to yourself. Neural mirroring also means that it responds in the same way when your friends are threatened!

In research carried out on this, brain scans of participants found a high correlation between the neural responses in the threat-to-self and the threat-to-friend conditions, but no such correlations between the threat-to-self and threat-to-stranger condition. To your brain, when a close friend is in danger, it’s as if the danger were targeted at you.

When we get to know someone really well, they start to become part of ourselves to the point that a real blurring of the self occurs and this is down to these mirroring neurons!  We understand the pain or difficulty a friend is going through in exactly the same way we understand our own pain.

Brains that fire togetherFriends help us to assess life differently: Various studies have shown that how we assess challenging situations changes when a friend is nearby. In one study looking at the effects of social support, participants were placed at the bottom of a hill and asked to estimate how steep it was. Those who were with a friend found the hill to be less steep then the participants who were alone. Although, a steep hill isn’t something we get typically get stressed about in our daily lives, the influence of friends on our subconscious cannot be underestimated!

When we’re with close social connections this influences our internal coping capacities and we feel more competent and confident. Hence, why we feel less stressed in difficult circumstances when we’re with friends than we might otherwise be if we were on our own.

Wired for social connection: There are a number of factors that influence our health and wellbeing, which include our biology, psychology and the social world we live in. The mind and body are inseparable, which means that with so many influencers on these different aspects of our being, it is the interaction of all these that affects us.  For example, if you get a stomach ache, this could be the result of an infection, but it could also be the result of stress from meeting deadlines or because of issues going on in your family or any other challenging situation you may be experience.

We are so influenced by those around us, that the quality and nature of social interactions affects our wellness. Our brains are biopsychosocial organs, designed for social interaction and to wire us to a web of social connections to help keep us healthy.

Sharing with a friendHaving a healthy social life involves things like thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning and intuition. These mentally stimulating activities help to build up our reserve of healthy brain cells, therefore promoting the formation of new connections, or synapses, between neurons which then play a part in our physical health. Quite simply, the brain wants us to have good friends!

It’s no wonder talking things through with a friend makes such a difference, that having a good night out with friends makes us happy or that working on an assignment with someone makes the task more manageable. The power of friendship cannot be underestimated and having quality relationships is one of the most important things we can do to survive and thrive in this complex world.

Make sure to surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you, who promote your sense of belonging and who make you feel valued. Make time to hang out together, open up to them and be open to their support. Particularly if you are struggling with one of life’s challenges or you are suffering from more serious mental health issues. It’s not a sign of weakness it’s a way of looking after yourself and those who love you will want to help. As human beings that is what we have been designed to do!

Likewise, be a good friend, understand how your behaviour is impacting those around you and make sound decisions to not only better yourself, but also the people you care for. Nurture your social connections for a happier, healthier and more enjoyable life!

If you think someone you know would benefit from this article, be a good friend and share it with them!

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Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

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