Friends for life | Sunday Observer

Friends for life

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light. -Hellen Keller

Given a choice between relatives and friends, most people would opt for the latter. There are many proverbs and idioms about friends in all languages. People say that friends can be “thick as thieves”, “peas in a pod”, “joined at the hip”, “getting on like a house on fire” and a “shoulder to cry on”. Our life would indeed be dull without friends. Our friends and friendships do change over time, though some friendships last from childhood to the evening of one’s life. Most of us also have a best friend, who stands with us no matter what happens. Naturally, there is even a TV series called “Friends”.

We know from experience that our close friends often think like us and share the same interests. In fact, that is why we could be friends in the first place. New research suggests that this is indeed the case with friends.

Neural similarity

Researchers put 42 business school students in an MRI machine and showed them a series of 14 videos. As they watched the clips, the scanner recorded the activity in their brains. Those patterns could be used to predict which students were friends and which were merely classmates, according to a study published last Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

“Neural similarity was associated with a dramatically increased likelihood of friendship,” the team from UCLA and Dartmouth College reported. “These results suggest that we are exceptionally similar to our friends in how we perceive and respond to the world around us,” they added.

That might seem obvious to anyone who knows that “birds of a feather flock together.” But until now, no one had ever put that maxim to the test by examining the cognitive activity of friends in real time. A “friend” in this case was defined as someone you would go out with for a drink, a meal, a movie or other “informal social activities.”

The researchers started with 279 students from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. All were asked whether they were friends with each of their fellow students. In the next phase of the study, 42 of the students agreed to lie in a functional MRI scanner while they watched videos for 36 minutes.

While the students watched, the scanner recorded the responses of 80 separate regions of their brains. Then the researchers compared the responses of each student with the responses of every other student. The 42 students could be paired up in 861 distinct ways. The responses of friend pairs were more alike than the responses of non-friend pairs. And the more similar their responses, the shorter the (mental) distance between them.

The researchers also found that the brain responses alone could do a pretty good job of predicting whether two people were friends, mere acquaintances or total strangers. The study results offer a new type of scientific proof that “people tend to be friends with individuals who see the world in a similar way,” the researchers say.

But the results don’t resolve the fundamental mystery about friendship raised by the researchers and countless others. Do we become friends with people who already see the world the way we do, or do we come to see the world through our friends’ eyes? It could be both.

Virtual vs physical

But the very nature of our friendships is being tested by the advent of the Internet, the so-called social networks in particular. To be fair, Facebook and similar networks help us connect with friends and acquaintances who live in far-off lands, find long-lost friends, keep pace with their political and other views and generally see what they (and their families) are up to. It can even give us envy – when we see friends taking a vacation while we sweat it out in the office. There are also messaging apps that help us to video chat or talk to friends for free, regardless of where they live in the world.

All these can be termed as positive, but social networks could really be bad news for actual, physical social networking. I recently came across a couple of persons who had amassed 5,000 “friends” on Facebook. This is virtually impossible with physical friends – no one I know has even 100 good friends, leave alone 5,000 friends. There is also a common “test” that can identify your true friends. Just check how many of your Facebook friends wish you on your birthday – almost everyone in your list will make the cut. The next year, either delete your FB account or go invisible and see how many of your friends wish you in person or by telephone. As a general guideline, only a maximum of 15 friends (not counting workplace colleagues) will call you, without having access to Facebook. This is the sad truth about friendship in the modern world.

Social networks

We have often seen people actually going out for a meal (sometimes arranged through Facebook itself), but browsing their smartphones without engaging in conversation with others. This obsession with the social media news feed can be detrimental to our mental and physical health and damaging to actual physical friendships. Many experts in the mental health and technology worlds, some of whom have helped create Facebook and similar websites, have now come forward to criticize the negative efforts of social networks. Some have gone to the extent of describing the social networks as “monsters”. Facebook and other social networks have admitted that they have to address these concerns – just last week, top child health experts warned that messaging apps designed especially for kids could harm their well-being.

Regardless of the advances of Facebook and its ilk, true friendships will never die. A good friend will see you through every bad moment and share your laughter at good moments. They can be friends for life – literally. There are many real life stories where people have put their lives at risk to save a friend facing danger or donated an organ to help them live. That is the power of true and eternal friendship.

The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it. -Hubert H Humphrey