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Birds of a Feather

No matter how socially inclusive and ethnically diverse we aim to be, it seems we are all hardwired to seek out those most similar to ourselves. A new study using functional magnetic resonance imaging, has discovered patterns within our neural responses that can predict friendships.

Carolyn Parkinson, of the University of California, and her colleagues, set out to determine whether human social networking went beyond the usual homophylic physical parameters of ages, genders, ethnicities and such. The study posed the question of whether our choice of friends also depended upon a neural homophily.

Past research has focussed on the fact that social interactions are created at much higher rates between individuals of the same physical and demographic categories, whether or not they are in the same physical location or interacting online. Anthropological evidence suggests that this tendency benefitted communities by sorting out groupings within a settlement in order to divide labour. Those physically strong, agile and cooperative would befit a hunter status, and so on. Bonding together with those who are most similar allows for group cohesion, cooperation and empathy. Interactions with dissimilar people within the community tended towards specific tasks or goals of a limited time span.

The phrase ‘like-minded’ is often bandied around in relation to friendships. Personality traits such as extroversion or being open to new experiences often become the cement for new ties. That, however, does not explain fully why groupings regularly contain differing personality traits.

How a person reacts to the environment is most easily predicted in subjects who are most like ourselves. This predictability provides us with effortless social interactions, allowing for deeper and more confident communication, thereby increasing the chances of friendship. Interacting with those who share our values, beliefs and opinions, reinforces our own. This positive affirmation is a highly attractive force.

To test this, Parkinson and her colleagues, showed volunteers naturalistic stimuli, in the form of video clips, while measuring the neural output. The neural pathway responses were then compared between volunteers to ascertain whether their thought processes bore similarities to each other while viewing the same footage. The test separated eighty brain regions, each mapped against time parameters of the video stimuli.

Their initial findings are not that surprising. Volunteers with a remarkable level of neural response similarities went on to declare a pre-existing friendship. Whether friendships shape our neural pathways or our pathways determine our friendships remains unclear, but it does seem that our social interactions are inextricably linked to our brain morphology.

From my own, highly unscientific observations, I would go as far as declaring that neural homophily is far more important than physical or behavioural characteristics. The ease with which communication flows within a friendship is key, whether you agree on certain issues or not. How we react to the world around us is more unifying than how we look to one another.

Sam Nash is the author of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller, The Aurora Mandate. Release date TBA. You can find her at or on Twitter @samnashauthor or

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