The Hidden Power of Friends

I have often thought about the impact that those whose company we choose (or are sometimes forced) to keep can impact upon us on an emotional and even physical level. Indeed the emotions of others can have such an influence that theirs can seep into our minds; they can become our emotions too. The company we keep is very important in ways that science is only recently beginning to fully explore.

Experiencing the emotions of others is automatic and often unbidden – we just do it intuitively. Our brains seep them up like a sponge. But why? What is it about the way we work that makes us not only share emotions but also intuit what others are feeling and share in it. What creates empathy? And why do some people feel it intently while others have great difficulty understanding how another person feels?

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s scientists discovered mirror-neurons. These are brain cells that spark when an animal moves a part of its body and sees another do exactly the same, hence the term ‘mirror’. In the original experiments monkeys were used but it has since been discovered that we humans have many, many more of these kinds of neurons. Indeed, neuroscientists now believe it is these that are at the root of all kinds of social phenomena and are the building blocks for empathy and indeed morality itself.

So, we not only copy and mirror each other emotionally but physically as well. And this kind of social learning starts to take place from the moment we are born. Pioneering work in the 70’s with infants showed that newborns start to copy the expressions of the faces of the people they see as early as 42 minutes after they’re born. And we continue copying one another all our lives. Anyone in business probably knows about ‘mirroring’ techniques that can be used in meetings and during pitches and presentations. By ‘mirroring’ people you can make them feel more at ease, create a connection with them and start to build rapport and trust. All by simply copying certain aspects of their gestures, the way they are sitting or their behaviour.

But the brain doesn’t just mirror the emotions or physical actions of others it also enables us to share the sensations of the people around us.

There is a vogue at the moment for talking about the importance of individualism. People say that we are individual beings and so should oppose any external influence or pressure on our own interests, whether that influence be from friends, society, family or our partners. I don’t agree. Whilst I am self-reliant and my wellbeing (both physical and mental) is my responsibility, it is an undoubted fact that the behaviour of others toward me and the environment in which I live and work has had an enormous impact upon me on a quite fundamental level. This is not to dodge responsibility – it is to embrace it. Because it allows me to see that not only do others have an impact upon me but also that I have an impact upon others. That what I say and do to others has consequences – both great and small. This doesn’t mean that I walk on eggshells in case of causing displeasure or constantly have to act like a clown for laughs and lightness. It means remaining aware, understanding and respecting that it matters what we do and say to people. Words count. Because we aren’t just individuals – we are social animals. We need each other.

And this fact – that we are social animals, connected and copying and mirroring each other throughout our lives has ramifications far beyond what I can fit in this one post. It affects where ideas come from. Has there ever been a truly original, singular idea or do we actually simply copy and refine other people’s and present them as new? Of course there hasn’t and we do. We copy each other’s ideas all the time. If we didn’t nothing would ever be invented. And yet there is such scorn, such outrage of copying. I don’t mean wholesale cloning of others ideas, which is all too prevalent and I am certainly not an advocate of. I mean that copying and using somebody else’s thinking is hardly a crime against them or society – it’s how ideas flourish and progress is made.

Thinking with others
Not only do we copy other people’s thoughts but we think with others all the time. In fact we think about other people far more than we might imagine. We also talk about them too; according to recent research about one-third of conversation is about things or the weather and the remaining two-thirds is about people, of which half is about people who aren’t even present during the conversation.

This thinking with others has been labeled as humans having a ‘distributed memory’. Who hasn’t gotten together at a party or for drinks with friends and started a conversation with “Do you remember that time when…?” We remember better collectively than we do individually. Some call magnified variations fn this type of distributed-memory the ‘wisdom of crowds’. But after the recent riots in London, I’m not sure how wise crowds are these days…

Our connections
Nevertheless – our connections, our friends and our families – the people we choose to surround ourselves with have impacts upon us far and beyond those that our conscious minds recognise. Surround yourself with miserable, lonely people and the likelihood is you’ll become miserable and lonely yourself without even noticing the change. Work with someone who is a stress-head and even though you might not normally suffer from stress or become so easily – you soon will. All of this sounds obvious I know – when we speak to a friend who is low we often feel the same after having talked to them and similarly when someone sounds happy and chirpy most people perk up.  But I’m not talking about the odd flash or moments which rub off on us momentarily but the long-term effect of our networks (family, friends, work and so on) on some of the most fundamental aspects of our psyche.

Choose wisely
I read a post recently written by another blogger where she examined what qualities connected her and her friends and kept them together over time. She decided that a good friend has “strength of character”. I rather like that.

Whether friends or our networks have such strength or not, perhaps one should try to choose them and the people one surrounds oneself with wisely. They affect who you are and your path in life more than they, and you, probably think.

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