The Science and Necessity of Friendship – Lydia Denworth | The Open Mind
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The Science and Necessity of Friendship – Lydia Denworth | The Open Mind

HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner,
your host on The Open Mind. My guest today explores
the science of how we think, learn and connect,
including the interactions between our biology, our
brains and our behavior. How do our perception
stimulate social dynamics and decision-making? Lydia Denworth is the
author of two books of popular science
“Toxic Truth: A Scientist, a Doctor, and the Battle
Over Lead “and “I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate
Journey Through the Science of Sound and
Language” and now she adds a third to her repertoire,
which we’re here to discuss. “Friendship:
The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary
Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.”
Denworth is also contributing editor at
Scientific American and writes the Brainwaves
Blog for Psychology Today. Thank you for
joining me, Lydia. DENWORTH: It’s
lovely to be here. HEFFNER: I think this is
really an appropriate and important topic, not just
because you uncover the lost and unsung
science of friendship, but because we need more
friends in our lives today in this digital environment. DENWORTH: We do. As a science writer I
mostly cover the brain. And so I was
interested in how, well what neuroscience is
mainly interested in these days is mapping
connections in the brain, inside the brain, but I
went to a meeting about social neuroscience, which
is a sort of newer field within neuroscience and
that is about mapping connections kind of in
and outside of the brain, this kind of web of, of
connections that we have with other people. And I sat there at this
meeting listening to them talking about all
these elements of social behavior and what it
does in the brain. I thought I was right at
that moment sort of wedged in between a parent with
Alzheimer’s disease and
teenagers. And so I was very buffeted
day in day out by other people’s emotions
and ups and downs and, and so it made me think
about the ways that people in our lives affect
us, even our biology, the way they make your
pulse pound and your adrenaline spike. But then I also thought
about here I am losing my parents and my kids are
growing up and out and I better make sure
I’ve got my friends. And that’s one of the
big topics that social neuroscience gets into. So
that’s really how I came to it. Just, you know, it was
that kind of confluence of my personal life and the, the
work I was already doing. But then the
more I dug into it, the more, the reason in
that whole field of social behavior that I really
chose to focus in on friendship is because it
has just not gotten the respect it
deserves, right? And I feel like the
importance of it has been, it’s been sort of hiding in
plain sight, friendship. And we all think
we know what it is. It’s so familiar
in a way that we, and we think we
think it’s important, but we don’t actually act
like it a lot of the time in the fundamental
ways that really matter. And I wanted to
understand that. And then I discovered that
in the last say 20 years science has gotten quite
serious about friendship and about social
relationships. And I wanted to explore how
that has evolved and why. HEFFNER: So you are giving
rebirth this science in the book and you’re
acknowledging that friendship revitalizes us. DENWORTH: Right. HEFFNER: That is one of
the core theses here. How does that
work scientifically? DENWORTH: I think the most
interesting part of the science or the newest
part of the science is the biology is one part of it,
is this question of how is it that a social relationship, which is not like food
that you actually put in your body or exercise
where you’re moving your muscles and you can
understand why going for a run might affect
your blood pressure. But why is it that a
conversation with a good friend sort of gets inside
your body and changes the way your body works? I mean it literally
affects your blood pressure, your sleep,
your stress responses, your immune system,
all of those things. And so that to me
is fascinating. That’s not
really something, we understood because
there’s that sort of HEFFNER: Well, it’s the
chemistry within the biology. DENWORTH: It’s the
chemistry within the biolo… I mean it’s, it’s a
lot of things and there’s still a lot we don’t know
about why exactly it does what it does, but
when, you know, friendship for a long time
was not studied seriously by biologists anyway because
it’s very hard to measure. It’s hard to define. And science is all about
measurement and definition. You know, you need to know
what it is you’re trying to measure in order to sort of
make a statement about it. And, so you
know, that there’s, so there’s a biology, but
then also the evolutionary side of it is fascinating
as a science because it’s really saying that we
humans share a drive to connect with a lot
of other species. And once you
understand it that way, you have to understand
that while friendship in human society has a lot
of cultural aspects to it, and it’s not entirely
cultural and that’s the way people imagined
it for a long time. I mean, C.C. Lewis, the
famous writer, he said, you know, friendship
has no survival value, but it gives
value to survival. Well it does give
value to survival, but actually it literally
has survival value. And so, you
know, in people, but also in other species,
those with the strongest social bonds live longest,
have the most reproductive success, which is the
evolutionary measure, you know, that you want. So that science of
understanding that is what has sort of broken
wide open in the last few decades and
really fascinated me. HEFFNER: It’s the way that
we respond: we might text one friend because we know
that they’ll make us laugh in a certain way. In that sense, it’s very; it’s
an accessible science, right? DENWORTH: It is an, yes. I mean, and, and it’s
something everybody’s interested in everybody,
you know both the people who have both think they
have a lot of friends and people who say, ah, I don’t
think I need friends. You know, everybody
has a view on this. And so yes, it’s
accessible in that way. It’s the, it’s, what I’m
hoping to do here is like peel the onion a little
bit and really explain to people that, why this is
so important and why those headlines you’ve seen
about loneliness and why, you know, there is a
growing sense in society that, that relationships
are important. But you know, not very
many people really get the deep story of why. HEFFNER: And not
instant message or text relationships,
so, you know, that’s one thing that
really struck me about the book and the subject
because we are in this climate of increasing
domestic terrorism, and of course lone wolf
attacks where there are stories after stories
of assassins who have massacred people
because they were not, they didn’t have friends. I mean, they were loners
or they were losers to quote Bill Maher
recently, right, and so we need to understand
the science of how we can relate socially to
rebuild capital, social capital. DENWORTH: Social capital. Yeah. It’s, I mean, it is
so distressing to see these people who are so
unconnected and you know, or then they think they’re
connecting online in this kind of, you know, with people
who think like they do. But that is so different
from what real true friendship is, you know,
and people worry and I worry that the
word friend has been, is devalued currency these
days with social media. HEFFNER: Right. DENWORTH: But I’ve actually
come to feel it’s not — HEFFNER: Revalued. DENWORTH: It’s revalued. It’s
valued anew, it means
different things. But, you know,
we’re not stupid. We know that our Facebook
friend that we actually never see, you know,
haven’t seen in years is not the same thing as your
best friend that you call when something good or bad
happens in your life, you know. And so there are real
differences in what we mean by the term
friends. So that was one thing. But also it’s, it’s
just understanding how critical, from birth basically, your social life
is and that you’re, so when you talk about,
you know this gun viol, the episodes of gun
violence and the, you know, I, I don’t have
the answers for all of that, but I am sure that
that kids who are really feel connected are just much less
likely to go down that path. And I think it’s, we
need to understand, I think with
children anyway, often we are pushing them
to accomplish things and they seem obsessed
with their friends. And as a parent, you
know, we sometimes say, well, okay, your
friends are great, but you know, you
need to do this. And, that’s not
untrue at times, but I do think it’s really
important to stop and check ourselves and
say, wait a minute, are we making sure
that they are building relationships
that they need? And even before
that, as a parent, understand that in
those early years of life, you’re not just sort of
teaching them to walk and talk and sheltering
and feeding them. You’re building
their social brain, you’re teaching them how
they’re going to go out in the world and be a
social individual. And then when they get to
the beginnings of school, they are getting a
different lesson from peers, which is an
essential lesson. And it’s about cooperation
and trust and you know, and loyalty and
things like that that are, that the better
you get at that, the better your
social skills, the sort of more success you’re
going to have, frankly. HEFFNER: The most
important origin I would hope is the Golden Rule. You said two things
that interest me greatly. One is about feeling
connected and the other is about friendships
outside of the family. But you do ultimately I
think want to have your mom, or dad or grandparents
or uncle, aunts — DENWORTH: Right. HEFFNER: Cousin,
nephew, as friends. You want them to
be friends too. DENWORTH: You do, you do. So I think this is one of the
really interesting things. So this new science of
friendship both blurs the lines between family and
friends and also helps us to try to understand
the differences. So, the word friend is
qualitative, right, it’s, it’s about a
relationship and emotion. And it tells you if I
call someone a friend, it tells you something about how
I feel about them. It should. And if I, you know, refer
to my husband or my son or my siblings, that those words
are, they’re categorical. They tell you how
we’re connected. But they don’t actually
tell you anything about the quality of
our relationship, which is why
people use the term, you know, when people like
to say that their spouse is their best friend but
they do that specifically to tell you that
their marriage is good. HEFFNER:
Qualitatively, right. DENWORTH:
Qualitatively, exactly. To add to what you
know about that marriage. And the truth is
that marriage can, your spouse can be
your best friend, but, but also not in,
sadly in a bunch of cases. And, and in fact it for a
long time we didn’t aspire to have our spouse
be our best friend, you know, so but one of
the things that is really important is quality. So quality, that’s what,
it rises out of all of this science: in
animals, in people, and you know, baboons
and rhesus macaques, and, and that, that
the stronger the bonds, the strong bonds
have, they’re positive, they’re long lasting and
there’s some reciprocity in there
somewhere usually, not necessarily at
every, you know, not, it’s not tit
for tat every minute. And in fact, in humans,
one of the wonderful things is we, we begin to
lose the accounting the closer we get to people. So
we’re not saying, you know, I did this for you, now it’s
your turn to do this for me. But you have to; you
have to arrive at that, you know, that
special place. But, the quality of
the relationship, that’s why
friendship is really like, it’s a template or it
can be a template for all other relationships
because when you think of your closest friends,
you really think about the positive, the way that you
treat each other positively. We don’t always do that with
other people in our lives. And yet those strong bonds
that are represented by a friendship are the ones
that determine our health and our longevity. HEFFNER: Unfortunately,
there are those who would feel connected by
virtue of tribe only. When I mentioned the rise
of bigotry and new racism, you know, the new Jim
Crow in this country, folks can feel connected to
tribe more than friendship. And the consequence of
that may be the mass murders we’re seeing, both
the mental illness and the race-based
modern Klan violence. So feeling connected, how
can you assess the science of friendship differently
because it is more fundamental than feeling
connected and folks unfortunately can feel
connected on chat rooms and then go out and
massacre people because they’re not their same
race or from the same country they’re from. DENWORTH: Absolutely
true. Absolutely true. And the work on the
sort of neuroscience of empathy, I think
is especially, it speaks to what you’re, what
you’re talking about here. Which is that first of all, we understand now that
they’re there in many ways there’s positive
elements of empathy. When we think of empathy,
we think of it as a good thing, but it also carries
with it that kind of us/them that, that,
in-group and out-group sort of element and,
and you can see it. What I hope is that
understanding how our brains work and that we
do bring implicit bias, all of us into the world. There’s a lot of research
that shows that – that then you have to, you have
to be aware of it and then you have to work to
counter it a little bit. You know, the, you have to
say, okay, I feel connected. I mean friendship has
been based since time in memorial on similarity. It’s what we, you know,
we’re drawn to people who are more like us
than not generally. And that doesn’t
have to be a bad thing, but it is something that
we should be aware of. And it doesn’t
mean that you know, some of the most
wonderful friendships are friendships across
generations or across races or, you know and that’s
what we should strive for. But I think its fair
to recognize, that, that there is
this kind of basic sort of instinct to hang out with
people who are somewhat like you, then to, and
that’s okay as long as you are paying
attention to, you know, or being self aware about
what you’re doing and then making the effort to
understand that other people are in fact also
probably more like you than you think. HEFFNER: The
newness of the science — DENWORTH: Right. HEFFNER: Does it
reflect the aims of, of friendship itself and
wanting to further enhance the quality of friendship? Or is it kind of an amoral
science at this point? DENWORTH: I mean, there
are elements of biology that, you know, it just,
the facts are the facts about how genes
work and about how, you know, brainwaves
work and things like that. And so we have to, I mean,
that’s what the original sort of controversy about
sociobiology and E.O. Wilson and all of
that, which you know, is, is the beginnings
of this new science of friendship was politically
controversial because people thought
that E.O. Wilson was saying or that
the sociobiologists were saying that, you know,
your genes drive what you do and therefore, you know,
bad behavior is acceptable. It’s, just what we’re,
it’s our natural instinct. That’s not what scientists
today are saying at all. They’re saying we need
to understand the facts, the underlying biology and
the evolutionary drive. But we also have the ability
and the wisdom to counter it if we see the culturally that
it’s not what we want. HEFFNER: And how for
our viewers who might be
interested in your book, how would you say that
that’s been embodied in your own friendships and
your tracing the science of, of your own friendships? DENWORTH: Well,
they’re just, this sort of: The
beginning of it is simply that friendship. I
prioritize it in my life. You know, I make sure
that I am paying attention with, as a
parent, as a spouse, I think it’s really
important that people encourage their
significant others to work on their own friendships
outside of the marital or romantic
relationship, you know, which sometimes
doesn’t happen. It’s important that
parents give their kids time to; I mean, just let
your kids have sleepovers. Let them
really spend time. I mean, this is one of the
fundamental things about friendship is that it takes
time. It takes time. Even if you like somebody,
the minute you meet them, it takes time to really
develop the bond that is going to sustain you. And so you need to
put in the time. You need to invest. So that’s like a, just
as a big ticket I mean, how does it
affect my life? It just changes, you know,
that that time where you think, oh, I’m too busy. I’m not going to
do the, you know, I’ll see this
friend another time. You stop and you say,
well, maybe not. Maybe I should prioritize
this right now, maybe. And you know so
there’s that. But I also do feel that
I understand on a deeper level that my
health depends on it, that, friendship is a
public health issue, you know, that if it is — HEFFNER: Oh yeah, you
know, that’s well said, because in this
political climate there, people often
riff on, you know, the strength of their
friendship and whether or not politics can
get in the way. I mean, I was wondering if
that’s something that you grappled with
in writing this, thinking about, you know,
the fact that sometimes you need a base
level of values — DENWORTH: Of
values, you do. In fact, I think one of
the really interesting things is that worldview
is one of the things that is most, most draws us together
with, with someone else. And, you know, it doesn’t,
you don’t have to have similar personalities, you
don’t, you know, but that in, a bunch of different
studies including way back at the
University of Michigan, the, one of the studies I
love is that in the early sixties this guy Theodore
Newcomb at University of Michigan had the idea,
it’s like reality to be before, you know, it’s or
before reality TV was a thing. And he put 17 incoming
transfer students to the University of Michigan
into one house together and he watched them
interact and make friends and then he asked
them every week, you know, to talk about who
they liked and why and, and he tracked
how much time they spent together and all of that. So, you know, just to try
to understand what pulls people together and what
drives them apart or what, you know how, cause you
can spend a whole lot of time in proximity with
someone and not like them very much or just
not become friends. You know, we do that with people
we work with all the time. We’re friendly,
but we’re not, you know, we’re
not deep friends. HEFFNER: Right. Exactly. DENWORTH: That’s
fine. That’s good. You know, that’s
the way it should be. You should be being
somewhat selective. I mean, that’s actually
the fundamental point of friendship is that I like this
person, you know, especially. I’m closer to this
person. I’m partial. It’s, it’s a, there’s a
sort of discriminative nature to the
relationship. Which by the way is one
reason philosophers didn’t like to study friendship
because it sort of, it said that, you know;
you were supposed to be loyal to God first. Actually the moral
philosophers or the Christian philosophers
didn’t like it because they thought it got in the
way of religious thought and then others because it
got in the way of sort of moral action because if
that’s true that you’re more partial to this person,
then maybe you’re going to not act for the universal
greater good. You know? I get the
philosophical argument, but I think that in fact
having those strong bonds, you know, is, has been a
force for good for most people and that we are
driven to cooperate just as much as we are
driven to compete. And that, friendship comes
out of that evolutionary drive to cooperate. HEFFNER: And when does
friendship become love? DENWORTH: It may be that
love comes first and that you, you know, if you’re, I mean, if you’re going to
have romantic passion for someone that’s, that
is something different. It’s, it’s another level of — HEFFNER: Right. Although
sometimes you’ll say to your bestest friends, you’ll say, I
love you man. Or I’ll go — DENWORTH: Oh, yes. HEFFNER: And that is
love has different — DENWORTH: Right?
Right. Okay, so. 200 hours: That’s how long
it takes to have, to call someone a best friend
to think of someone as, so there’s a researcher at
the University of Kansas, Jeff Hall, whose work
I really enjoy and who actually measured
the amount of time and investment it takes
for people to consider someone, a friend. And it was 50, about 50
hours just to go from an acquaintance to a friend. And then there are
these other cut points. But for a best friend,
you really needed to have spent about 200
hours together. And those 200 hours need
to be engaged in something a little bit
meaningful, you know, either sharing, it
doesn’t have to be self-disclosure, I don’t
have to tell you the whole story of my childhood
and all my hopes and aspirations and you know,
disappointments in life, right, right away. But catching up, even
if you ask someone, tell me what’s going on
in your life that shows that you are
interested, right. And so that kind
of conversation and interaction helps to build
friendship. And so, yes. So apparently it
takes 200 hours HEFFNER: And truth telling,
candor, isn’t that real
ingredient here. DENWORTH: It is, although
it’s interesting because if you think about quality
relationships and we think about wanting that positive
bond, you also need to be kind. So you need to find
that balance between, you know, being truthful
but also being kind. And you know, I
mean it is funny. It makes me laugh
because you know, I can really snap at my
family members for how they load the dishwasher, right
or something silly like that. But I wouldn’t do
that to my friend. You know, I might just
sort of live with it or, you know, and so I,
which is not to say that I don’t, I, because of
course I’m raising three boys I need to teach them
how to load the dishwasher well so that, you know, I
take this off the plate of their future partners. But the point is that it,
I do think sometimes we should stop and we should
think about how we treat all of the people, all of
the different people in our lives and some
relationships we sort of allow ourselves a little
bit less kindness and our friends, we tend not
to be that way with, you know and so I
think we can take a little something, I’m not trying
to be Pollyanna-ish here because sometimes
real, you know, hard truths
need to be said. HEFFNER: Where is the
research going right now? DENWORTH: So
it’s fascinating. One of the so the neuroscience
really intrigues me. They’re trying to look at
the brains of two people as they interact and
essentially capture friendship while
it’s happening. And, the idea is, is
there some place that your brains go when you’re
interacting with a friend that they wouldn’t
get to on their own? And can we see it? Can we see it in
a brain scanner? And you know, what we do
know is that and just in the last year or
two, we know that your, the way your brain
processes the world is more similar to the
way your friends brain processes the world than
it is to people to whom you’re not as close. And so, and by that I mean
literally like the way you look at a video or
listen to something, is different from
somebody else’s. And the question is,
do you and your friend process the world the same
way and that’s part of what draws you together. I mean, you can’t know it;
you can’t look at someone and say, I see
how you are, you know, auditory cortex
is operating but you, but you might end up being
drawn to each other or do you become more similar
as you are together? And we don’t know
the answer yet. They’re working
on that, but that, you know, probably it’s a
little of both, you know? HEFFNER: You had
alluded to the idea that friendship was abstract as
a science and therefore it was relegated
or dismissed, but it’s also
so subjective. DENWORTH: It is. HEFFNER: You know,
and it’s how we assess, well, are these the two
people whose brains we want to monitor, you
know, is that really our definition of friendship? And then it comes
back to values too. DENWORTH: Well okay.
But in that study, for instance, of monitoring
frame, you know, there, there are many,
many people in the study. Well, yeah, I
mean, you know, there’s a limit to how
many people you can run through the
scanner so those, those, they’re not
thousands of people, but, but it’s not
just picking two people. HEFFNER: I understand. I’m just wondering,
were all those people how strict the criteria is or
by what they’re judging the criteria to
admit them to the study? DENWORTH: Well, in
that particular case, they all happen be students
in a graduate program. And so they
brought them together. You know, they tested them
right when they got there. And so then they can
follow them over time. HEFFNER: I think your
hours criteria is a smart one, an objective one. DENWORTH: Yeah. Yeah. HEFFNER: And I don’t
know if that’s the conclusion of the
friendship academia community, but the
number of hours, DENWORTH: You know,
I, what I loved about the number of hours
is just that, you know, nobody had ever
counted that before and — HEFFNER: You’re
accountable. Right. And then you’re
accountable. Exactly. Thank you so much for
your time today, Lydia. DENWORTH: Thank
you very much. HEFFNER: And thanks to
you in the audience. I hope you join us again
next time for a thoughtful excursion into
the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit The
Open Mind website at to
view this program online or to access other
interviews and do check us out on Twitter and
Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on
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