How friends matter to your brain
October 12th, 2010
05:01 PM ET

How friends matter to your brain

Your friends may matter to you in ways that you can't even see - at the level of neural circuitry in the brain.

It turns out that the brain's frontal midline, an area between the two hemispheres that is associated with socialization and the way you think about yourself, also shows a greater response from friends than strangers, even strangers with similar interests and lifestyles, said Fenna Krienen, graduate student at Harvard University and lead author of a new study on the subject.

"What we ended up finding is that closeness really seems to matter to these circuits in the brain much more than similarity," she said.

Krienen's study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, did four different functional magnetic imaging experiments on a total of 98 participants to explore these issues of brain activation and social ties.

They looked at how the brain would respond to strangers who have different interests from those of the participants, compared  with strangers with common interests, and whether that reaction would correspond to what they observed with friends.

Some participants viewed photos that they brought in of two friends and answered questions that mimicked the TV show “The Newlywed Game," which dealt with how their friends would answer particular questions. One of these friends was someone the individual participant considered similar to himself or herself; the other the participant viewed as dissimilar. They also did this with "strangers" - researchers had invented their biographies, and paired photos with them that previous participants had brought in of their friends. Some of these biographies indicated similar interests to those of the participants, others were different.

Researchers found that it didn't matter whether the strangers had common or dissimilar interests to their own - the strangers tended not to produce the same effect on the medial prefrontal regions and associated regions as the friends. It also didn't matter whether participants considered the friends similar or unlike themselves; the relevant brain regions showed enhanced responses to both kinds of friends.

"In every case, it seemed like friends were processed with much greater neural activity in brain networks that make sense to us than did strangers," Krienen said.

More precisely, the scientists saw increased blood oxygenation levels in the frontal midline and associated regions. This indicates increased neuronal activity in those areas.

This brain area, in addition to social responses, has been shown in other research to be involved in tasks that require calculating expected rewards and making other kinds of decisions.

Previous research had also looked at these regions on the question about how the brain responds to strangers, but this is a first look at how the similarity of acquaintances and strangers might play a role, Krienen said. The study proposes further research in this area, including a study of how the brain responds to a close acquaintance with whom the participant doesn't get along very well.

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soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Haley-15

    very interesting! i love my friends(:

    October 12, 2010 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bob

    These scientist think humans are a bunch of machines with NO souls! They think there is no intelligence outside the body.. I love their interpertation of creation..

    October 12, 2010 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katy

      because they are.

      October 12, 2010 at 21:15 | Report abuse |
    • Tommy


      October 12, 2010 at 21:44 | Report abuse |
    • Rendirth

      And you're getting this from this article...how?

      October 12, 2010 at 23:24 | Report abuse |
    • buckup

      Bob, do you know these people personally? Or are you getting your facts from your psychic hotline?

      October 12, 2010 at 23:27 | Report abuse |
    • kofybean

      @mattinoregon: The article doesn't give any empirical evidence of "closeness", "love", or even what a "stranger" is... i don't hear you complaining about that. So why say that about a soul?

      The artilce doesn't define what a stranger is.

      October 12, 2010 at 23:56 | Report abuse |
    • scroo yoo

      A stranger is when you sit on your hand until it falls asleep,then pleasure yourself with it.

      Although I fail to see what that has to do with this article

      October 13, 2010 at 00:29 | Report abuse |
    • Indyman

      Bob, you obviously have not read much on modern science. Unfortunately, most religionists and anti-religionists don't read much on the current discoveries in quantum physics. I would recommend you listen to or read Dr. Michio Kaku. Albert Einstein was working on what he called "the theory of everything" when he passed away. When asked if he believed in God, he answered, "I believe in Spinoza's God." You may want to read a little about Spinoza, Emptiness, The Dao, The Quantum Field, and the Universe. Sorry, can't educate you on this comment board, but some exploring and education on the part of both religionists and anti-religionists will go a long way; seems you both are using very outdated and archaic tools for both your arguments.

      Regarding the article, I think it's very interesting and proves how important interaction with friend really is.

      October 13, 2010 at 02:01 | Report abuse |
    • Sam Dikeman

      If human beings has souls that is separate from body, at what point soul got associated with body? what is the evidence? Our body has been evolved from monkeys and if we take the evolutionary chain, we all came from bacteria. At what point the soul became part of the body? There are many unanswered questions in relation to claim that soul is separate from our body. It is just a perception created by our brain.

      October 13, 2010 at 07:29 | Report abuse |
    • Kirk

      If you believe in souls, you are an idiot. End of discussion.

      October 13, 2010 at 09:09 | Report abuse |
    • magnus

      OK Bob, lets just assume that there is a god and a soul. So, what you are telling me is that God gave us the ability to think, formulate our own ideas, give us the tools to make discoveries and the ability to create medicine for horrible disease, but that was all done as a big test by God to see if we will challenge his existence? That God of yours is one big mind-gaming joker. Oh, at this moment in time, there is a young child being raped by a pedophile before being murdered. Yep, your God sure knows how to play jokes on us.

      October 13, 2010 at 09:37 | Report abuse |
    • Admiror

      Stop provoking an argument and please stop using scientists as a pejorative, umbrella term. Research in science seeks to understand that which can be observed or explained with the tools at its disposal. In that manner science is able to better understand the universe. However, because a study does not mention the soul does not mean that those involved do not believe in a soul. Because you're taking the tone of someone who believes in personal souls, I am going to assume that you do in fact believe in them. A full understanding of the human person, the way it interacts with the world and others requires scientific study as well as philosophical and theological study. Without understanding the physical nature of the brain, you risk assigning properties to something which does not hold those properties.

      October 13, 2010 at 09:37 | Report abuse |

      Look at all the idiots who responded to Bob! Way to go. See how sheeple are? DUHHH I BELIEVE EVERYTHING I READ ON CNN BECAUSE IT SUITS ME JUST FINE! FACTS? WHO NEEDS EM!

      I read numerous scientific magazines and books and cut through the bs. Yes, they do reduce to a collection of neurons. Sad really. Those who think that way, well that is what they are then. Let them die alone and lost. At the end of it all, they will look back and realize they were a bunch of miserable sheep.

      October 18, 2010 at 15:05 | Report abuse |
    • Xugos

      I think what BOB means is that this article oversimplifies the human brain; the most complex thing known to man in the entire universe. And to some extent, he is absolutely true.

      October 29, 2010 at 17:06 | Report abuse |
  3. Joey

    I already knew i felt more positive when i saw/though about my friends than when i saw strangers

    October 12, 2010 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. anne

    Wonder what would have happened if they had tested the friends against with "real strangers" rather than "invented strangers" with made up bios....what about meeting strangers in person rather than observing pictures. At times, I think you can sense who might be a potential friend even among strangers.

    October 12, 2010 at 21:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Assivah

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      Хорошо но не думаю что ты приехал из берлина чтобы сказать комплимент.

      April 5, 2012 at 21:00 | Report abuse |
  5. Ray

    I agree, Bob (though I think you're overstating it by calling them "scientists"). These guys would wonder at a car's ability to drive down the street, ignoring completely the fact that there's a driver behind the wheel.

    October 12, 2010 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tommy

      You and Bob should become friends. Simple minds think alike.

      October 12, 2010 at 21:45 | Report abuse |
    • ghati

      Tommy – superlike

      October 12, 2010 at 21:50 | Report abuse |
    • buckup

      soulmates, having the sole solution

      October 12, 2010 at 23:21 | Report abuse |
    • Kirk

      Earth to Ray. Earth to Ray. Come in Ray. There is no divine hand at the wheel of creation. When you die, your former body will rot and everything you are comes to utter nothingness. Baby Jesus will not be waiting to wash the stinky feet of your soul because there are NO SOULS and there is NO GOD. Now, hold onto something solid Ray because I have to tell you something even more astounding: there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy. So live every minute of this life to the fullest because you arn't getting another one.

      October 13, 2010 at 09:16 | Report abuse |
    • David

      @Kirk.. Is it possible for a second that your small brain can imagine that some things exist in this universe that you don't understand? For example, can you fathom that when people talk about souls, spirit, divinity, etc, that they are talking about how the energy in body that keeps you alive, still exists after you've died? You've heard about matter or energy (or something like that, I'm not a physisist) not being able to be created or destroyed? Well, those tiny, minute electrical pulses that make your brain and nervous system work are things that don't necessarily disapear. They just weaken in intensity. They are the smallest elements in the universe that "might" still exists and live forever. Yes, it's hard to imagine or explain fully, but it's really stupid to think that we simple humans understand everything that there is to life. But maybe you, Kirk, are wise enough to explain simply where the stuff we're made of all came from, and where is goes at the end.

      October 13, 2010 at 09:45 | Report abuse |
    • @Kirk

      @Kirk - Not sure I agree that your definitive logic is any sounder than Ray's or Bob's. To that point if what you are saying is true, are you really living life to its full potential by wasting time replying to comments on an anonymous discussion board? I think not 😉

      Also I will quote Einstein because it makes me look more credible than those who don't....God without Science is boring and Science without God is pointless..

      Yall enjoy your stay now 🙂

      October 13, 2010 at 09:59 | Report abuse |
  6. Arthur

    Many people with brain disorders could benefit from closer friendships. Parkinson's in particular benefits from higher "neural" activity, to make up for the lack of dopamine. Interesting study! Here's a music video from the point of view of someone who has Parkinson's.


    October 12, 2010 at 21:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Janice

      That is beautiful and brilliant.

      October 13, 2010 at 01:30 | Report abuse |
    • nushatka

      Thanks for the video link, this is so inspirational!

      October 13, 2010 at 05:14 | Report abuse |
  7. Joseph Mortz

    ... of course - DAH.

    October 12, 2010 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. dallas007

    Bobbyray, Ray and Bob are the same person, lol

    October 12, 2010 at 23:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. kofybean

    What kind of scientific study is this that doesn't define its variables? What is a friend? What is a stranger? What is closeness?

    October 13, 2010 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pipedown

      Kofybean did you read the journal article? The study, as reported in the Journal of Neuroscience (which is a very reputable scientific journal), OF COURSE gives operational definitions for all of the study variables (how they operationally defined friend, stranger, etc.). So... there's your answer. We're you seriously looking for a research report on a general news website?

      October 13, 2010 at 00:57 | Report abuse |
    • kofybean

      @pipedown: You are incorrect. The study did NOT define a friend or a stranger. The participants GAVE the researcher two friends, one similar and one dissimilar, so the participants choose who their "friends" were, "friends" was not controlled. It was randomly defined by the individuals.

      Is a man i work with, stand next to for 5 days a week, for 10 years, with similar interest, automatically considered to be my friend?? If I met someone, just once, of disimilar interest, are they automatically NOT my friend?

      The study focused on "closeness" and interactions in the brain. You guys just bow to anyone in a white lab coat don't you?

      October 13, 2010 at 01:56 | Report abuse |
    • buckup

      If you really want to know, you have to read the article in the Journal of Neuroscience. Or are you saying you did that, and are reporting back to CNN that this is your analysis?

      October 13, 2010 at 02:03 | Report abuse |
    • kofybean

      @buckup: correct. For their article to have relevance, I would like to know what they defined as friend/stranger. The researcher did not define "friend" the participants did.

      If having "friends" is important to our brain, shouldn't they be more specific on WHAT a friend is? I can't believe you guys are disagreeing with me on this. If this closeness is good for the brain, and their study clearly showed that having similar interest does not mean closeness as strangers can have similar interest but not produce similar response to the brain, then, scientifically, what is a friend?

      October 13, 2010 at 02:48 | Report abuse |
    • magnus

      Journal of Neuroscience is a very good journal and the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. I cannot believe that the strong peer-review process for a manuscript being published in that journal would be ignored.

      October 13, 2010 at 09:33 | Report abuse |
  10. SpoogeMonkey

    I have spray cheese in between each of my toes.

    October 13, 2010 at 00:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • joe

      that was brilliant

      October 13, 2010 at 03:18 | Report abuse |
    • stranger

      LOL that's hilarious

      October 13, 2010 at 10:44 | Report abuse |
  11. Rob

    Seriously, you need to do a test on how people react towards each other. If you go to a school and watch kids expressions as they are reunited with their friends. You will see their face light up.

    October 13, 2010 at 02:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. DrTrojandevil

    Wow CNN, way to be modern phrenologists!!! This is the kind of reporting about neuroscience that stretches/distorts the interpretational capabilities of fMRI research. Technical aspects aside, the fMRI data simply suggests that when one takes voxel by voxel (voxel = 3d pixel or 'pixel with volume') activation measurements of groups looking at 'friends' vs. 'similar-strangers' there is a statistically significant difference. The problem is there is no reason to assume that there would be overlapping activation of that region based on these stimuli in the first place. The moral of the story is 'dont get excited every time something lights up in an fMRI study'–localization should be about the temporal distribution of network activity, not the hemodynamic signatures of loosely defined categorical responses.

    October 13, 2010 at 05:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Money

    So technically any guy in the friend zone has a better chance than a stranger with the same interests. Score.

    October 13, 2010 at 07:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jorge

    Friendship is a relative thing, you may believe that you have a friend if you get along with and enjoy someone's company for a long time, yet reconsider the definition of that friendship after an incident where important interests oppose and actions/mindsets clash in critical ways. I believe that the importance of friends wanes and the importance of collaborators and family increases as one gets older, life experiences become more abundant and the mind becomes more sober. This is subject to personality and culture, of course; I have childhood friends overseas that I see once a year who are much closer to me than 'friendly' people I deal with every day at work or in my neighborhood.

    October 13, 2010 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Bob

    This would make sense in that anytime you meet someone new your focus changes so that you can consider the persons trustworthiness. As the person becomes more well known the differences will disappear. This is an important study for those in sales because the more you see a new client the more trusted you are and the more business you get. What would have be interesting is if the stranger was a public figure – in fact bring in one trusted public figure and one untrusted public figure and see what the differences are.

    October 13, 2010 at 09:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Pat Ramsden

    I thought we already knew this.

    October 13, 2010 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Asa

    What's funny about that is that I haven't had any close friends for about 3 years. Now that I've gained one, my grades are dropping by huge amounts...

    Too much distraction >>->>

    October 13, 2010 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jim Johnson

    I need to see proof that there is no God before I start disbeleving.

    October 13, 2010 at 09:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SeanNJ

      Cognitive dissonance is a b!tch, ain't it?

      October 13, 2010 at 12:50 | Report abuse |
  19. isadore

    This article made me a bit sad. I have a mental illness...i have no friends. I try at friendships, but I am finding that people have very little tolerance for others who are different. I get very lonely, but I have my dog. Seems to me dogs are better companions than most folk anyhow. It just would be nice to have a (human) friend who doesn't leave and/or judge me for being different.

    October 13, 2010 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • stranger

      a friend isn't suppose to judge you. sorry you are having a hard time finding one that doesn't. but i have found dogs are so much better! they are always happy to see you and sad when you leave and love you forever no matter what.

      October 13, 2010 at 10:50 | Report abuse |
    • seekothers

      @ isadore. One of the best methods I've found to combat what once was severe depression is volunteering for a worthy cause. It doesn't matter so much what the cause is. The point is to find like minded people to help you serve others. I think when people have common interests and goals one's focus shifts to others. There is less emphasis on the illness. I've found that people with a common cause are far less judgmental. I realize that getting out and volunteering takes a significant amount of energy, but once you are able to do it, the benefits will keep you going back. I wish you the best.

      October 13, 2010 at 12:21 | Report abuse |
    • tehheh

      I'm glad you have a dog friend. They are often more loyal than most people. Heck, they are actually more like furry relatives. It's always nice to have someone to talk to sometimes, however. Have you tried any support groups that might exist for people with your illness? If one doesn't exist would it make sense for you to start one? If it seems feasible, also talk to the physician treating you about the possibility and what might be needed.

      October 13, 2010 at 12:25 | Report abuse |
  20. Ben

    Someone is an internet tough guy/girl. Honestly whatever belief you have the article talks about how we chemically react to friendship. WE all know friendship is important this just goes deeper to what we can't see but feel. If you feel the need to attack people who believe in souls please just sell you fake/non existent soul to the "devil". You are quite annoying and sometimes the ignorant are allowed to pass. Now excuse me while I watch the science channel and learn about this great planet we inhabit.

    October 13, 2010 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. lightenup

    You don't HAVE a soul......you ARE a soul.

    October 13, 2010 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Anna


    Not everyone is made to have hundreds of random friends. Some people are lucky to have 1 or 2 true friends. The rest are just casual acquaintances that feed some kind of ego need. Be proud of being different, and if anyone thinks otherwise, they are not worth your energy or time.

    October 13, 2010 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • isadore

      Thanks for your reply. I do have one amazing best friend, and we've been married for 16 years. He's it, though. It would be nice to have a close friend who is a female. My experience, however, is that females are A LOT more vicious and judgmental than men. Yet, all the picture displaying "closeness" are of women? Why is that?

      October 13, 2010 at 11:06 | Report abuse |
    • Veggiehead

      Isadore, I agree with you that women can be a sort of closed society. If you are in, you are tight as ticks. If you are out, you may as well not exist. And alway, always, you need to watch your back.

      October 13, 2010 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
  23. salista

    haha, wow people on this site are totaly idiots. very immature i thought we were out of middle school, right? maybe im mistaken but still. there is no need to fight about something so small and dumb. also let people think what they want to think... its called freedom of speech!

    October 13, 2010 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Veggiehead

    The area of the brain that was active when friends were the focus is involved in "calculating expected rewards." Couldn't it be the difference is that you love your friends and expect to be loved back by them (and know somewhere deep in your mind that you need to work for that relationship and keep alert for signs of negative response), but you have no expectations of that "reward" from strangers? Of course, probably all of us have had the experience of meeting a stranger and feeling an immediate connection. I wonder how that interaction would appear in the brain.

    October 13, 2010 at 12:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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