This Is Your Brain On Friendship | Invisibilia | NPR


ALIX: Let’s begin at the beginning… It was around June 2014, PETER: Harmony, Jeff, Max… ALIX: and 20 young adults had gathered for a training. See they were gonna spend the next two months together working to organize Walmart employees KENDRA: And we were all asked to stand up and share why they decided to participate, what brought them to that moment. BRIAN: You know, kind of the typical, “Hi my name is, and I’m from wherever.” ALIX: This is Kendra and Brian and during that first meeting both of them instantly picked out people they just KNEW they’d end up befriending. For Brian it was this striking woman who spoke fluent Portuguese BRIAN: And I remember thinking like wow I need to learn from her. ALIX: And for Kendra, it was this girl from California who, like herself, came from a working class family of immigrants. KENDRA: I thought wow, I’d love to talk to her more ALIX: But Kendra and Brian? Even though they’d actually gone to the same college… the friend chemistry that night wasn’t exactly staggering KENDRA: Like oh yeah You know, we’re gonna be doing this together. Yup. BRIAN: I didn’t feel any like immediate connection, really. ALIX: It’s a pretty normal experience you walk into a room and there are people that you like and people who leave you cold. Except with this group, it wasn’t exactly normal because they were being tracked by a sociologist named Peter Berman who was looking to answer a very specific question. PETER: Can we identify in the neural response that we have to other people who we’re going to like many, many months later. ALIX: Basically if you peer into someone’s brain immediately after they’ve met a group of people, can you tell anything about who they later befriend? Maybe can you see something that they themselves can’t yet see? So the first thing that Peter does is he sits everybody down and gives them a massive questionnaire. PETER: To what extent do you like: Kevin, Harmony, Greta. To what extent does that other person like you? ALIX: And then… came the machine. More than 30,000 pounds of metal and magnets elegantly molded into an aerodynamic-ish tube capable of seeing that great bundle of blood and electricity inside our skull: an FMRI. PETER: We would show them pictures of themselves and everybody in the group 10 times in a random order. ALIX: There they lay, images of different faces flashing before them as the machine watched one particular region inside their head. PETER: You might show someone an image of a $20 dollar bill and that region may get activated So it’s a region of the brain that’s activated when the thing that they’re looking at is somehow relevant to their goals. ALIX: But what was so striking was that there was often this strange difference between who people SAID they that liked versus who their BRAINS said that they liked. PETER: It’s like looking at two data sets like frozen yogurt and, um, fish. ALIX: And guess which one was better at predicting your future friend? [drum roll] Not you… Your brain! PETER: Our neural response to other people is very strongly predictive of who we’re going to like months later. ALIX: Like Brian and Kendra. Though neither SAID they had great affection for each other initially — both of their brains saw things differently — and sure enough after a couple of weeks, they were so enamored with each other they actually had to check their desire to spend time together BRIAN: I remember like knowing that we actually kind of needed to split up for our professional capacity. ALIX: Did that feel like a conflict for you? KENDRA: Every day. Every day. ALIX: Now this is a small study and the first of its kind so it’s hard to draw a broad conclusions. Still, I think it’s so strange to think about how one day in the summer of 2014 a machine looked into the brains of people and in that moment could see more about the feelings that would flower than the person lying inside it. HANNA: So after we did this story we started to wonder, what does the fMRI machine think about all this? Doctors don’t swallow their patients. That is one of the main differences between me and doctors. If a doctor did swallow their patient, I imagine that would be a far scarier experience for the patient than being swallowed by me. They would wait inside the mouth, the waiting room of the body. There would be magazines there, but they would be wet. That would be the first problem. Then the doctor would swallow and contemplate the patient inside of them. Does this person seem sick? Where did they hurt? Are they afraid of public speaking? I envy the doctor because the doctor does not automatically know a person but stands outside the person and has to guess: What is it with them? I know what it is with them Imagine you were walking down the street look at every person you pass every stranger. What if you knew every thought they had? That man: he is smiling, but he is lonely. That woman: she could murder someone. The man with a beard: he is happy and he also does not know he has multiple sclerosis yet. All that information, all those secrets, it’s too much. Imagine the noise of it. You want to be able to see through walls, but imagine if you couldn’t turn it off when what’s on the other side of the wall is your parents having sex? Once there was a blackout in the hospital. There are generators to keep the things going that people will die without. I am NOT one of those things. I could not scan, but I could look. I had to guess what was going on inside of people, it was thrilling. Here are my guesses: panic, hunger, relief, relief, lust unresolved fear of the dark, herniated disc. Occasionally a worker crawls in to inspect me. They ask themselves” Is this thing doing what it should? And: if it turned on, would it see that I’m sick? Or that I’m smarter than everyone thinks I am I? I wish they’d ask instead: What IS it with this thing? What does this thing want? I would respond: When you instantly know people they do not have to explain themselves to you No one tells you stories. A connection does not happen from the fact of knowing someone, it happens in the process of someone helping you know them. [music plays] Once, I saw a radiologist lie to an intern about why they couldn’t come to their open mic night. They said they had, “family in town.” The intern was lucky. They couldn’t see what I could. It was such a kind thing to do.

6 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain On Friendship | Invisibilia | NPR

  1. Hey i fix those machines and let me tell me something sir. We care deeeply about all your parts and we use our brain and body to the fullest extent to grt to know you mr machine. And let me tell you something else sr you are the best! Scans is the most boring thing you do.

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