One of my oldest and best friends is a super organized budget director. I've always been math and planning challenged. Another close friend has climbed the corporate ladder by being a savvy political operator (he also inexplicably likes to clean the house to disco). I'm a freelance writer who spends her days in solitude, stinks at office maneuvering, and prefers, well, pretty much anything to disco.

In short, if you saw me and my besties together, you'd probably wonder what we have in common. I doubt I'm alone in that.

While all friendships are built on common touch points (mine generally revolve around wine, honesty, and humor), who we form deep bonds with often seems random and illogical. We just click with some people, even if they seem nothing like us.

But that, apparently, is only on the outside. According to a fascinating new study led by psychologist Carolyn Parkinson of the University of California, Los Angeles and highlighted in Pacific Standard, close friends' brains are much more similar that you'd ever imagine.

Different lives, similar brains

To dig into the hidden similarities between friends, the research team asked a cohort of 279 graduate students from the same program to answer a questionnaire about who they were friends with. This produced a map of friendships among the study subjects. The scientists then used an fMRI machine to scan the brains of a select group of 42 participants while they watched a variety of video clips, from footage of President Obama to shots of earth from space and highlights from a soccer match.

The results were crystal clear. Friends might appear wildly different on the outside, but their brains work in remarkably similar ways. The brain regions that lit up in response to each video "were significantly more similar among friends than among people farther removed from one another in their real-world social network," reported the researchers.

That was true even when the scientists controlled for demographic factors like age, gender, and ethnicity that might nudge people to see the world similarly. And the closer the friends, the greater the similarity.

"Our results suggest that friends process the world around them in exceptionally similar ways," commented Parkinson.

That means that while I might be horrified at my friend's penchant for blaring dance music early in the morning while doing the dishes, at a biological level our brains probably respond to the world in much the same way, helping us to click as friends despite the other person's different taste, talents, and personal style.

I'm not entirely shocked by these results -- the magic of meeting someone you're mysteriously 'on the same wavelength with' is just too strong an experience -- but the findings do make me appreciate my bond with my weird-but-beautiful besties more than ever. This column's for you, guys.

Published on: Feb 7, 2018
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