Have you ever thought about what it takes to make a friend? What happens inside of your brain when you feel a social connection click? To answer these questions and more, we found Michael Platt, Ph.D.
Michael is the director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the esteemed Wharton School of Business. He holds a BA and Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively.
His university bio asserts, “We are particularly interested in the biological mechanisms that allow people and other animals to make decisions when the environment is ambiguous or complicated by the presence of other individuals.” It goes on to state that “We use a broad array of techniques, including single neuron recordings, microstimulation, neuropharmacology, eye tracking, brain imaging, and genomics to answer these questions.”
You don’t have to understand those scientific methods to get the picture: Michael knows his stuff. He believes his research has the capacity to improve health and welfare worldwide. This topic is particularly relevant as folks head into retirement because loneliness can become more of a risk. We often take for granted the built-in socialization of working at an office, networking at business functions, or even cheering at our children’s sporting events. Ending a career can close off those social tributaries joined at the confluence of our primary working years.
The truth, Michael told me, is that it becomes harder to make friends as we age, a potentially catastrophic problem. “The more friends you have, the longer, the healthier, the happier life. And, the more money you make because, honestly, being able to connect with people and being able to communicate is a really effective skill in business.”
Humans, and even our distant primate relatives, are hard-wired to develop connections with others. It’s imperative to our survival. “I spend half my time studying monkeys,” Michael admitted. “We last shared a common ancestor with them 30 million years ago, and their brains are wired in exactly the same way ours are. They depend on each other. The more friends a monkey has, the longer, the healthier the life they live, the more babies they have.”
Do our brain waves literally sync with each other? Sort of. Michael says the biological system is engaged when humans make eye contact. Our activity patterns begin to resemble each other, and the release of oxytocin accelerates the process. A natural hormone in males and females, consider oxytocin the volume knob for connection. When it’s turned up to eleven, companionship is blasting like a raucous guitar lick at a George Strait concert.
If you’ve noticed that you enjoy watching a comedy or a football game with a group of people or prefer attending a large church service rather than praying alone at home, it’s not just you. Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of modern sociology, called it collective effervescence. According to Durkheim, “A community or society may at times come together and simultaneously communicate the same thought and participate in the same action. Such an event then causes collective effervescence which excites individuals and serves to unify the group.” It’s that feeling when the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and you feel part of something. Social connection is so baked into humanity that we react physically to it.
So, the question isn’t, “Do we need friends to be happy and healthy?” That’s been asked and answered: we absolutely do. The more appropriate inquiry asks, “How do we continue to nurture our social connections as it becomes more difficult?”
Anecdotally, most of us notice the challenges of aging. As a youth, you might spend all day riding bikes with a kid who happens to live around the block. In your fifties, not so much. My friends had huge, maximum-capacity wedding receptions as young adults. Nowadays, they are smaller, intimate ceremonies. I hadn’t put this into perspective until Michael did it for me.
He said the tendency for social networks to contract with age is interwoven into our brains. The drive in adolescents is more prominent, and then it decreases. Even more eye-opening is that the winnowing of friendships happens more to men than women. Michael believes this contributes to men dying younger on average. There are obvious exceptions, but I think most of us know plenty of older men who prefer to tinker alone in the shed rather than hug it out with friends and family.
If you find all this alarming, that’s okay. You can’t control nature, but you can manage your reaction to it. Michael implores us to fight against biology. Effort is the anecdote. Make it happen. Put the devices down. Get out there. Think of it like going to the gym. At first, you might be sweaty and out of breath. But, eventually, you find a rhythm and begin eagerly anticipating the exercise. It’s the same with maintaining friendships.
Once again, Michael emphasizes this concept by explaining the behavior of monkeys. “Friendship is a process, and it requires maintenance and investment. That’s one thing we learned from monkeys. Monkeys don’t, you know, they don’t have money. What do they have? They have their time, and they have their energy. And so, when monkeys make friends, what they do is they spend all their time grooming together. It’s not really a hygiene response. They are making a tactile investment in their relationship, and the more they do that together, the more likely it would be to help each other in the future.” In essence, he says, we do the same thing. But, rather than grooming each other, we play tennis, meet at a coffee shop, or grab a beer.
Michael and I connected. I don’t know if two people are enough to achieve collective effervescence, but right away, I knew he was the perfect person to meet up with for a cold, refreshing lager. Having four kids means I don’t always get that chance. But now that I know that social connection is vital to my survival, I’ve got the perfect excuse.
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