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Snippet of Call Your Girlfriend: The Science of Friendship

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station description A podcast for long distance besties everywhere. Co-hosted by BFFs Ann Friedman and ... read more
Call Your Girlfriend
Duration: 18:16
Discover the science behind friendship with science journalist Lydia Denworth. She discusses her latest research on the importance of friendship.
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Discover the science behind friendship with science journalist Lydia Denworth. She discusses her latest research on the importance of friendship.
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producer. I haven't watched this get, and I'm very excited to sink into some comfortable, warm, deep friend Love content. It's the thing I'm missing the most in my life being with friends and getting to revel in these kinds of relationships and these kinds of stories so honestly cannot wait. And you can watch Firefly Lane now on Lee on Netflix. Support for today's show comes from Squarespace, the all in one platform to build a beautiful online presence and run your business from websites online stores to marketing tools and analytics. Squarespace has you covered there? No hidden fees or price hikes, and all websites are optimized for mobile. It's so simple. Start with a designated template and use dragon drop tools to make it your own. Had to squarespace dot com slash girlfriend for a free trial. And when you're ready to launch, use the offer code girlfriend to save 10% off your first purchase. Welcome to call your girlfriend a podcast for long distance besties. Everywhere she's an Friedman. She is Amina, too. So, on today's agenda, we're talking about the science of friendship with science journalist Lydia Den Worth, who is the author of friendship, the evolution, biology and extraordinary power of life's fundamental bond. 10. You have give your E. You just met somebody. New friendship, The evolution, biology and extraordinary power of life's fundamental bond is out now and is something that we read and informed. A few of the science see parts of our own book about friendship. So here I am with Lydia. Lydia, Thank you so much for being on the podcast. Thanks for having me. It's great to be here, so I know you are a science journalist. I'm curious to hear why the science of friendship with something that you wanted to delve into. You know, part of my job as a journalist and as a science journalist in particular, is to sort of go and listen to scientists, especially when they talk to each other and try to work out what they think is interesting and important and new. And this idea that there was a biology and in evolutionary story to friendship was definitely that about five years ago I went to a conference for social neuroscience, and it was a lot about this, and so I was really intrigued because I hadn't really thought about the biology of friendship, which makes me, like, pretty much everybody else. And I thought friendship, huh? That seems like something I could dig into. And, you know, I'm at a point in my life for my kids were beginning to go off to college and I was losing my mother. You know, I'm in transition a little bit. I mean, I have my husband of many years, but it did sort of seem like a wake up call. Hey, maybe I better really, really make sure that I'm paying attention to my friends and that I guess that I have my friendship house in order. So it was personal for you as well as well. Yeah. I mean, it was work, and it was personal, and I thought that I would really like to become an expert on this. And what was the conversation among scientists? I know you mentioned this, you know, moment five years ago, But were they talking about friendship as something that was really well understood on a level of neuroscience or where do they have a lot of questions or what? What about their conversation sparked your interest. They do have a lot of questions, scientists. Part of what they were talking about was the science of social behavior in general and then friendship in particular. I think what I thought was so interesting is that when it comes to friendship, people have enjoyed the friendship and celebrated friendship for thousands of years. And so it's not that nobody ever thought about it, but we didn't think about it as sort of shaping our biology. And so social neuroscientists do work both in humans and animals. So that meeting is a little unusual in the scientific world because it brings together thes to sort of different strands of science. But that's actually the whole story about this new understanding of friendship is that by discovering friendship or something like it in a whole lot of other species, it tells us that there's this much larger story, uh, to the phenomenon of friendship and that you know how, when people think about evolution, they usually think about survival of the fittest and competition. And even though Darwin apparently never said survival of the fittest, But hey, that's okay, we're you know, that's how we understand it. And there has been competition, and that is true, but cooperation turns out to be as important on DSO. It's really also been survival of the friendliest. And I just thought that was cool. This idea that if you're good at making friends and you have strong friendships, that that's a skill that isn't just sort of going to make life more pleasant. But there's actually going to make life longer and healthier and maybe more successful that seemed, you know, really cool. And the other thing is that things like there's a lot of pieces to the science of friendship, so understanding the social brain better is something that really has taken off in the last 10 to 20 years. Concepts like empathy. We now understand that there's a neuroscience to empathy, and that's really maybe in the last 10 years that that's happened and empathy and theory of mind. So theory of mind is the ability to understand that someone else has a perspective that's different from yours, and it develops and kids around about the age of three or four. I mean, it's a it's a constant process, but we think of Children as having it from, you know, from about three or four and That's not surprisingly, when they begin to sort of make friends right, because then they sort of understand other people as someone separate. But so there's a whole lot more work has been done on things like empathy on the's, evolutionary questions on the social brain on loneliness. Maybe you're familiar. That's probably the thing that the wider world is most familiar with. There's been a lot of talk of the risks of loneliness, and that's part of the story that interested me. But I also really liked the idea of doing the flip of focusing on the flip side on the positive and the benefits of social connection, because they are two sides of the same coin. So loneliness is what goes wrong, and friendship is what goes right. I want to come back to loneliness. But first I want to ask you to define this term the social brain, because I think before I read your book, I would have maybe not known exactly what you were talking about. Yes, so you know, we often think about the brain as learning and memory on, you know, our senses, and it is all those things. But it turns out that huge swaths of our brain are occupied with other people with understanding other people with them, with figuring out what they're all about with interpreting what there's tracks with my experience. Yes, yes, exactly. And you know, sometimes obsessively. But this whole field of social neuroscience Onley began in the nineties on Do you Know the brain in general? I mean, the nineties 19 nineties air considered the decade of the brain, and it's because that is when technology just took off and we suddenly had MRI's and F. Emery Emery is a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, and it's that tube that you could stick someone in and you can actually look at their brain. And the functional piece of it means that you can ask them to do some sort of task or to think about something. And then you can look at how their brains activity changes while they're doing the task Now. Not surprisingly, there are limits to the tasks one can undertake while lying in a tube and in memory machine. But still like that made so much possible that wasn't possible before. And now the really latest work using that for friendship, literally came out Oh, a year or two ago. There was this fascinating study by researchers at Dartmouth and U. C. L. A that put people in an M R in an FMRI machine and looked at the way their brains processed video clips, different kinds of video clips. And then we're able. They were able to predict, out of all the people in their study who were all members of a graduate school program who was friends with who based on the way their brains processed the video clips. That prompts the question for me of I guess it's like a little bit of a friendship, chicken or egg question that my co host, I mean not to. And I are always thinking about, which is are we friends because we're alike, or are we alike? Because we're friends like, That's my immediate next question when I hear about that memory study, and that is the immediate next question that those scientists are asking. So the answer is we don't know yet. Are they working on? They're working on it. We suspect that it's both, as is so often the case, so it is absolutely true in friendship that were drawn to people who are more similar to us than that not that does not mean that we cannot have friendships with people who are different. And of course, there's a wonderful richness to that. But historically, and for most people were drawn to people who are like us, we have a lot more. We have a lot to talk about, sort of off the bat. That's why I have a lot of friends who are middle aged women with teenagers and creative jobs, you know, on especially writers. But world view shared worldview seems to be super important in the question of what brings people together as friends. We also know, though, that when you spend time with someone and conversation can up bring your brains into alignment. So there's just the beginnings of studies showing the way the brain does change as you spend time together. So we suspect they suspect we don't get credit. I'm the reporter, the neuroscientists, But that was the universal we right, we who are looking at this way, we society suspect that you know it is both. It is that you are sort of drawn to someone who processes the world. The way you dio, but you also then become more like your friends. And I do just want to add the thing that I think it's so cool about this particular study. Was that what they did? Was they? I said it's video clips that they showed Well, those video clips were very kind of different in feeling. You know, one was like a latest sort of crazy late night comedy skit, and another was a news piece about pollution seen from outer space. And one was a technology review, and one was a sort of piece of amok you mentoring from Australia. That was very dry humor. And three idea was that they're designed to appeal the different senses of humor and different kinds of people and things like that. You know, the same thing that you would in your day to day life, like think Oh, you know, she laughed at that joke, and I you know, I think that's funny. She thinks that funny or, you know, the things that draw you together, the things or if you both have passions for I don't know for Gilmore Girls or whatever it is that, like brings you together, the fact that you like the same things. That's, uh, sort of obvious. What we didn't know was what would that look like in the brain? And it turned out that it wasn't just like certain parts or even just the social brain parts. It was like almost everything, especially your visual and auditory attention. So you are literally seeing and hearing the world more like your friends than the people that you're not close to as close Thio. Um, and I just thought that was really cool. Yeah, and it really tracks with, you know, something that we have talked about and written about a lot, which is that for us, some of our deepest and most important friendships have been with people in whom, like from the very start, we sense this possibility of wanting to kind of go to the same place. So it's not even just we share a worldview or we think the same jokes are funny. But like maybe we have the same general life aspirations. Or maybe we're both hungry in the same way for the same things. Um, maybe that means, you know, in a bigger political sense. Or maybe it means in terms of how we wanna live our lives. I'm curious about that aspect, too, of like, not just we're accepting the world as it is in front of us are interpreting it. But I'm wondering if the science has anything to say about forward looking as well that you really are making a very good scientist. And because that is the questions Thistle neuroscientist at Dartmouth named Talia Wheatley, who is leading this work, what she wants to do. And this is what the sort of technology has is on Lee. Just maybe barely beginning toe Let us do is to see what happens when friends come together in conversation. And if you can pinpoint in their brain activity something new happening, she calls it like a walk in the woods. And where do you end up? And, um, the sort of dance of friendship that she's trying to actually capture and see. So that requires, you know, looking at two people's brains at the same time while they're in natural conversation or interaction. And that's hard to pull off, although we're starting to be able to do that. So that's one answer, Um, but it is also true that I mean, I agree 100% with what you're saying, that you gravitate to people who yeah, who are want to want some of the same things out of life that you do, I think Andi, I mean when hearing you say that makes me think all the way back to when my husband and I met in college and that I feel like that was very much something that pulled us together. And there's a chemistry to friendship, just like there's a chemistry to romance. There's that, that kind of, you know, let's walk through this life together Actually, one of the concepts that I really liked and it's not a brand new one, but that socials or developmental psychologists who looked at the lifespan developed was the idea that we all have a social convoy that travels through life with us. And in fact, what happens is there's change in those people that travel with us. But But you are then sort of looking ahead at where you're going to be going in life, right? And I I would love to hear you talk a little bit about some of the terminology we use when it comes to friendship because I know that terms like kinship or bonds or, you know, ah, lot of the ways that I would say that I have a kinship. And I have bonds with all kinds of people, right? Not just my blood relatives, not just people who could legally be called family, but friends. You know, those are the people who come to mind first in some, in some instances, more so than, you know, family or romantic partner. And I'm curious about the language that some of these scientists use whether they're looking at, like, the animal kingdom or trying to study humans. And how do they draw those lines between? Okay, so your convoy is obviously a lot of different types of people. Is there a way of pinpointing the role of friends in particular as standing out among all these other social relationships? This is really an interesting, um, piece of this whole science. I feel like it to me. So on some levels, what happened with this work is that it helped to clarify what friendship is because one reason scientists didn't study friendship for a long time in this kind of serious biological way or the neuroscience for the evolution of it is because friendships a little bit hard to define and hard to measure. It's a little squishy on git was seen as maybe a little soft. But what has happened is as they've worked on it in multiple fields, but especially in animals in other other animals. In other species, it's easier to strip away the complex variables of human life and sort of get down to the nitty gritty and at its simplest, friendships basically include three things. They're long lasting. They're positive in that they make us feel good, each each partner in the relationship and their cooperative. So there's a reciprocity to them. That's the bit about, you know, you help me, I help. You were there for each other when we need it, and that's really what friendship at its core is about. It's about helping us, whether the stresses of day to day life. But so once you have that definition, there's some clarity about what friendship is. But the other thing and this gets to your question is that this new science of friendship blurs the lines between relatives and romantic partners and friends because it's emphasizing the quality of the bond. And it's saying, if you have a relationship with someone where it's positive and it's long lasting and there's cooperation and you know you get a lot of benefit from it, that's a friendship essentially, and in fact, the word friend is qualitative. The word sister or brother or spouse or cousin is categorical. It tells you something about our biological relationship or our legal relationship. If I want to describe my relationship with my husband or or somebody wants to talk about their sister as their best friend, they're saying that to tell you that there's value added to the relationship right, that it's better than your average because, let's face it, not all family relationships are so great. Not all marriages air so wonderful. Hopefully, for most people, they are. But so what we know now is that I mentioned the social convoy that the people that travel through life with you well, most of us have in our inner circle, just on average of fault. Maybe four people. It's like
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