Brain size could determine whether you are good at maintaining friendships

Their study is published on 1 February 2012 in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The research was carried out as part of the British Academy Centenary ‘Lucy to Language’ project, led by Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford in a collaboration with Dr Joanne Powell and Dr Marta Garcia-Finana at Liverpool University, Dr Penny Lewis at Manchester University and Professor Neil Roberts at Edinburgh University.

The study suggests that we need to employ a set of cognitive skills to maintain a number of friends (and the keyword is ‘friends’ as opposed to just the total number of people we know). These skills are described by social scientists as ‘mentalising’ or ‘mind-reading’– a capacity to understand what another person is thinking, which is crucial to our ability to handle our complex social world, including the ability to hold conversations with one another. This study, for the first time, suggests that our competency in these skills is determined by the size of key regions of our brains (in particular, the frontal lobe).

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 [the italics signify the different mind states]. Being able to maintain five separate individuals’ mental states is the natural upper limit for most adults.’

The researchers took anatomical MR images 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, the part of the brain used in high-level thinking. Participants were asked to make a list of everyone they had had social, as opposed to professional, contact with over the previous seven days. They also took a test to determine their competency in mentalising.

Professor Robin Dunbar, said: ‘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. Understanding this link between an individual’s brain size and the number of friends they have helps us understand the mechanisms that have led to humans developing bigger brains than other primate species. The frontal lobes of the brain, in particular, have enlarged dramatically in humans over the last half million years.’

Dr Joanne Powell, from the Department of Psychology, University of Liverpool, said: ‘Perhaps the most important finding of our study is that we have been able to show that the relationship between brain size and social network size is mediated by mentalising skills. What this tells us is that the size of your brain determines your social skills, and it is these that allow you have many friends.’

Professor Dunbar said: ‘All the volunteers in this sample were postgraduate students of broadly similar ages with potentially similar opportunities for social activities. Of course, the amount of spare time for socialising, geography, personality and gender all influence friendship size, but we also know that at least some of these factors, notably gender, also correlate with mentalising skills. Our study finds there is a link between the ability to read how other people think and social network size.’

Professor Dunbar’s research was funded by the British Academy Centenary Research Project and by the British Academy Research Professorship. His research has already examined the different brain sizes of different species, but this study looks at the differences within species. Professor Dunbar published a paper last year, which found that people living near to the Poles needed larger brains for visual processing because of the dimmer light conditions. 

For more information, please contact the University of Oxford Press Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email: [email protected]

Notes for editors

‘Orbital Prefrontal cortex volume predicts social network size: an imaging study of individual differences in humans’ is by Joanne Powell of the University of Liverpool; Penelope Lewis of the University of Manchester; Neil Roberts of the University of Edinburgh; Marta Garcia-Finana of the University of Liverpool, and Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford. It will be published on 1 February 2012 by the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B

The Lucy to Language Project

The Lucy to Language Project aims to explore how the early hominid brain evolved from its essentially ape-like beginnings among the earliest australopithecines (around 3.5 million years ago) to the modern human potential of the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution (around 50,000 years ago) and its final expression in the dramatic social and economic changes of the last 10,000 years. It is funded by a seven-year programme grant awarded by the British Academy.