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The Real Social Network? You're Born With It

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The size of your social network may have nothing to do with the number of friends on your Facebook page and everything to do with the heft of your amygdala, the almond shaped section of the brain that governs a person's ability to play well with others.

At least that was the hypothesis of a new study published online yesterday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

In the study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used MRI scans to measure the amygdalas of 58 people aged 19 to 83. They found the structure ranged in size from about 2.5 cubic millimeters to more than twice that.

Each volunteer also filled out a questionnaire giving the number of people they met regularly. "They also commented on the complexity of each relationship. For example, one friend might also be a boss, meaning the person had to adapt their behavior with the person depending on the nature of their encounter," reports the Guardian.

"People who have large amygdalas may have the raw material needed to maintain larger and more complex social networks," said the lead author. "That said, the brain is a use it or lose it organ. It may be that when people interact more their amygdalas get larger. That would be my guess."

Previous studies on the amygdala have shown that this nugget of circuitry also plays a role in creating first impressions, making a person shy or extroverted, or anxious and depressed versus secure; it even lords over our ability to enjoy scary movies.

A report published last week showed that a woman’s whose amygdala was wiped out by a rare disease no longer felt any fear at all. In lab studies, the woman showed no response to images and associations that normally triggered panic in volunteer subjects.The woman also said that she experienced no alarm whatsoever when -- in real life -- she was attacked by a man who threatened to kill her.

Yesterday's report about the size of amygdalas did not wade into the age-old quality vs. quantity debate: is it better to have a few close ties or several "mostly Facebook" friends? In other words, does the size of an amygdala really matter outside of the ape world?

Yes or no, several health studies have shown that simply having pals and co-conspirators improves one's health and outlook. As the New Year approaches, we might all do well do remember this anecdote from the New York Times article, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life”:

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.

The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

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