Why We Need Friends Now More Than Ever

Studies say we need friends in order to be happier, healthier, and to live longer — but in this case, is less more? 


In an age obsessed with popularity, where how many friends you have on social media has become a bragging right, one has to stop and wonder: What are the value of friends, and can’t we have too many? Many of us are familiar with Dunbar’s Number, which states that we can only maintain 150 relationships in our minds at any given time in our lives. But many experts say we are better off with a quality-over-quantity attitude, which may come as a relief to those of us who, after the gotta-collect-’em-all approach of our 20s, have entered a phase of wanting fewer, but closer friends.

As a recent Quartz piece explained via the work of Tim Kasser, people have two predominant attitudes toward friendships: one where popularity (being liked or admired by many) is the goal, and another where affinity (or striving for deeper relationships) was preferred. As it turns out, those who longed for popularity were “less happy, less healthy, more depressed, and used more drugs.” And those who put in the time for deeper, more meaningful relationships had the opposite finding: They were happier, healthier, and less depressed. In fact the Mayo Clinic suggests that having close friends can increase your happiness, self-confidence, and sense of purpose, while reducing stress. They can also help you cope with traumas and illness: In a 2006 study, women with breast cancer who were without close friends were four times more likely to die as a result of breast cancer than women with 10 or more close friends.

Whatever our carefully curated social media profiles would have you believe, we are actually growing more isolated as a culture. We have fewer close friends than we did 30 years ago. In 1985, most people had three good friends they could confide in, and now the “number of discussion partners has gone from three to zero, with almost half of the population (43.6 percent) now reporting that they discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person.” So we know having friends is important to our health, and that a vast number of us don’t have anyone to call on — should we just start hoarding as many friends as possible?

It’s been well-documented that as adults leave their 20s behind for their 30s, their social circles tend to shrink. Is this because so many choose to get married and have kids in their 30s, or is it that we lose our tolerance for flakey fairweather friends in favor of the evergreen sort? Probably both. As we become more of ourselves, we become less dependent on our friends to tell us what we’re like. Cutting the fat is an important part of growing up — who needs superfluous relationships, where you spread yourself so thin that you don’t spend enough quality time with the people who really matter? Social connection, one study said, is “a leading factor in the promotion of health, well-being, and longevity, [and] requires social knowledge and the capacity to cultivate intimacy.” The more sophisticated our social knowledge, then, the more meaningful our friendships. The older and wiser we become, the more value we place on people who we know will be there for us.

I’m a lucky broad. I know that I have a handful of people I can call if I need to talk, meet up with for good times, and who would protect me if provoked. I cherish these people and have cultivated our friendships for varying amounts of years because I know that our love and respect is mutual, and goes deeper than some of the more superficial friendships I’ve had in the past. As I reached 30, I reflected on these friendships: Who would really be there for me, no matter what? I might not have the 150 Dunbar recommended, but I’m pretty happy with my lot. They inspire me to be my best self, provide a sounding board, and make me laugh harder than anyone else. And that reliability, in this unreliable world, may be the best gift they have to give.

PHOTO CREDIT: NBC/NBC Universal

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
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