Smaller brains have fewer friends

Research being led by an Oxford psychology professor has suggested that there is a link between the size of of our brains and the number of friends that we retain.

The research, led by Professor Robin Dunbar, also claims that popularity is achieved through a form of ‘mind-reading’ to establish what other people are thinking.

This capacity to understand what other people want is described as crucial to our ability to handle our complex social world, including the ability to hold conversations with one another.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, demonstrates that sociable people have a larger orbital prefrontal cortex, the region of our brain located just above the eyes.

Professor Dunbar, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, explained: “’Mentalising’ is where one individual is able to follow a natural hierarchy involving other individuals’ mind states.

“For example, in the play Othello, Shakespeare manages to keep track of five separate mental states: he intended that his audience believes that Iago wants Othello to suppose that Desdemona loves Cassio. Being able to maintain five separate individuals’ mental states is the natural upper limit for most adults.”

He continued: “We found that individuals who had more friends did better on ‘mentalising’ tasks and had more neural volume in the orbital frontal cortex, the part of the forebrain immediately above the eyes.”

The researchers took MRI scans of the brains of 40 volunteers at the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre at the University of Liverpool to measure the size of the prefrontal cortex. Participants were asked to make a list of everyone they had had social, as opposed to professional, contact with over the previous seven days.

A student from Brasenose who wished to remain anonymous to “prevent an overload of Facebook friend requests” commented: “I’ve always considered my brain to be humongous; I guess this study shows I’ve been right all along. I’ve been perfecting the art of mind-reading for years, and now my mortar board doesn’t fit anymore.”

Dr Penny Lewis, from the School of Psychological Sciences at The University of Manchester, who was also part of the research team, said: “Both the number of friends people had and their ability to think about other people’s feelings predicted the size of this same small brain area.

“This not only suggests that we’ve found a region which is critical for sociality, it also shows that the link between brain anatomy and social success is much more direct than previously believed.”

She also confirmed the hypothesis of students across the country: “It looks as though size really does matter when it comes to social success.”

Self-styled “serial socialite” from Keble, James Kleinfeld, commented: “From now on I know that every essay I write brings me one step closer to popularity.”

February 2012
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