For decades, people have joked that individuals who do well academically are less likely to have a lot of friends. A new study conducted at the University of Liverpool may blow that theory apart.
Psychology, biostatistics, and anthropology experts conducted a study to see if a link exists between the size of the orbital prefrontal cortex (a region in the frontal lobe of the human brain) and the ability to maintain multiple friendships. What they found, if proven to be true, is startling.
The study was part of the British Academy Centenary “Lucy to Language” project. The scientists who conducted this research collaborated despite working at separate universities around England and Scotland. They conducted their testing on 42 subjects, both male and female, ranging from 18 to 47 years of age. The wide range of ages helped ensure that the data they collected would not be based on just one group of people, such as college students. Each subject was asked to list the number of people they had interacted with socially in the previous week. This data was then compared to MRI scans of each person’s brain to see if there was any correlation between the two measures.
The study goes on to state that areas of the temporal lobe may also affect the number of friendships a person can have, but that the researchers chose to focus on the orbital prefrontal cortex to cut down on the number of variables in the experiment.
Their findings suggest that the larger someone’s orbital prefrontal cortex is, the more friendships he or she will be able to maintain. This seems like a far-fetched assertion, but the researchers concluded that it was not the size of the orbital prefrontal cortex, but rather the more advanced cognitive skills that come along with a larger cortex that directly determine the number a friendships a person can have.
The researchers labelled these skills as “mentalising” and have concluded that they are essential for maintaining multiple friendships. This means that someone who has a larger frontal lobe will be able to read social cues better and will, as a result, be able to balance more personal interactions.
The major question that now has to be addressed, however, is whether the study’s findings will hold up to academic scrutiny. Tori Smeglin (CAS ’14), believes that the study draws believable conclusions, “Oh, that’s definitely a possibility. [The prefrontal cortex's] greatest job is executive decision making. The choices we make effect how we interact with others, so I would not be surprised if there was a positive correlation between the two.”
Others are not so quick to believe the scientists’ conclusions. Marc Howard, a psychology professor at BU, commented that—although the scope of the study was not in his realm of expertise—he is “not aware of any evidence that the size of the brain correlates meaningfully with any measurable cognitive or social function.” Professor Howard went on to say that he “would be shocked if there is such a relationship.”
With all these conflicting opinions, only time and more research will provide conclusive evidence as to whether the study’s findings are valid. Either way, the work of the “Lucy to Language” project has provided us with much food for thought.
The original study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which can be found here.