Hard Wired for Friends

Aug 26, 2013

A new study from the University of Virginia suggests human beings are hard-wired for friendship – that our brains actually view friends and loved ones as part of ourselves.  

You might remember UVA Professor Jim Coan from studies he’s done on hand-holding.  He put women in an MRI scanner and threatened to administer a mild electric shock to their ankles – then watched what their brains did.

“When you’re alone in the MRI scanner, facing the threat of electric shock, your brain is pretty active. As one of my students said, it lights up like a Christmas tree.”

But when subjects were allowed to hold hands with a stranger, there was less activity – and much less apparent stress when the same women held hands with their husbands.  Now, Coan is back with a new study involving a subject, his or her friend and a third person – a stranger.  Once again, the subject  lies inside an MRI scanner and is threatened with a mild shock.

“When we threaten you, when we scare you, when we make you feel bad, those regions associated with the self become really active.”

Dr. Jim Coan
Credit University of Virginia

Then, the stranger is told he or she will receive a shock.  So what happens to the subject’s brain?
“It doesn’t really look the same.”

And then it’s the friend who’s getting shocked.

“When we put your friend under threat, it looks very similar as when we put you under threat.””

In other words, our brain responds in much the same way when we’re threatened and when a friend or loved one is threatened.  Coan thinks that makes sense.

“If I’m not just me, but I’m me and you and my best friend and my spouse and my children, I get distressed when they’re distressed, but on the other hand, it means their resources are my resources, so I’m calmer, I’m more relaxed,  I don’t respond as strongly when a stresser arises, because I know that I’ve got all of these people that will watch my back and that I can depend on.”

He also thinks it’s possible that sociopaths – people who appear not to have a conscience – have brains that function differently.