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The importance of friendship…

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01 April 2015, at 1:00am

Dr DAVID WILLIAMS continues his series with a discussion on the value of friendship, noting while online interaction can be valuable it’s important to supplement this with plenty of face-to-face contact

THANK you all of you who sent me birthday wishes, mostly on Facebook. So nice to know I have 485 friends!

But can I really have that number of proper friends? The anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested, based on his work on brain size and community size in a number of primate species, that the maximum number of individuals within a “bonded social system” (a friendship group to you and me!) is around 150 for humans; what is now termed Dunbar’s number.

But Robert Scoble suggests that while we may know this number of people closely, there is a much larger number for whom the link is much more sporadic. This so-called Scoble number might be in the thousands.

In social groups for chimpanzees and gorillas, social interactions through individual grooming are really important. Social grooming triggers beta-endorphin release in the central nervous system; these neurotransmitters have short-term analgesic roles and give a form of opiate “high”. In the long-term they build trust and obligation.

In lower mammals, oxytocin and vasopressin have important functions in pair bonding with the first work being undertaken in prairie voles. The same was found in monogamous zebra finches and work on oxytocin knockout mice showed deficits in social interactions easily reversed by giving the hormone. But what does this have to say about human relations?

Increased trust

Ten years ago Michael Kosfield showed that intranasal oxytocin increased trust between humans, affecting an individual’s willingness to accept social risks. But can such interactions happen online? This is important for vets who often find themselves working in isolation.

As David Bartram notes in his valuable 2008 Veterinary Record paper, new graduates find the move from a close college social group to working as an individual, even if in a sizeable practice, as a significant stressor. As a profession, we have been near the top of the ladder for suicide risk.

Maybe that isolation felt in the early part of our careers is critical. But two of my friends who took their own lives were far from being new graduates. Both gave themselves an intravenous barbiturate overdose. Such chemicals are readily available to all of us.

Regularly we hear ourselves telling owners that their cat or dog is facing a terminal illness and maybe the best thing is to put their pet out of pain as nothing curative can be offered. Maybe saying that so often can turn to convincing us that the same could be true in our case. I cannot imagine that situation but it can happen.

One of those two friends provided a fantastic ophthalmic service from within a general practice setting as well as being a brilliant guy in so many other ways.

My ophthalmic notes for the students I teach are dedicated to him and in my first lecture I show a picture of Andrew using a slit lamp and tell the audience about how wonderful he was and yet how little value he must have put on his life in the end.

I urge them that if they ever feel that life is not worth living, it’s essential that they talk to someone, anyone. If there is nobody else they have my number (07939 074682 if you need it).

If those few words can help someone going through what the writer of Psalm 23 calls the valley of the shadow of death, they will have been more worth saying than all the other hours of lectures they have from me!

The key thing for them, for us all, is keeping the circle of friends developed at vet school. They have known us through the highs and lows of the course. And maybe that is where social media can be a real benefit as long as those friends are real friends: those in your Dunbar number and not just occasional Scoble contacts.

But maybe picking up a phone and talking is better than a Facebook conversation? And perhaps a faceto-face chat and perhaps a hug too releases far more empowering oxytocin than sitting by a computer screen could ever do.

Physical evidence

You have to go back 10 years to find a paper on whether having a hug from your partner changes your oxytocin levels (it does!) but only last year some Swedish research investigated how human interactions with dogs changed the animal’s oxytocin levels.

Physical contact really made a difference over and above a mere verbal greeting, at least in the animal. The researchers didn’t measure owners’ hormonal changes but a little more searching came up with earlier work in Japan showing that a dog gazing at its owner can increase the owner’s oxytocin levels.

To return to Dunbar’s number, my 150 friends (if I really have that number!) are not all at the same social proximity to me. Instead, I have a series of layers of interactions – some very close: immediate family and friends, next my work colleagues, then a larger number of people I come into contact with occasionally.

Let me introduce you to another two interesting individuals. Robert Horton and Arthur Strahler were geoscientists working on the run-off characteristics of rainfall, producing mathematical models of how tributaries merge together to form a major river. This analysis led to the concepts of Horton Order or Strahler Stream Order, depending on which scientist you feel closest to!

Robert Horton was born in 1875. Early in his career, working on how hydrology impacted on engineering of dams, he realised how complex the factors influencing rainfall run-off on a hillside were. It wasn’t until 1945, though, a month before his death, that he completed his analysis and published his seminal paper on the subject.

Arthur Newell Strahler (1918- 2002) was at the other end of the academic spectrum, a professor at Columbia University with 17 books and numerous papers to his name. Until 1946, “Art” worked on the development of mountains but when he read Horton’s paper he realised how important it was.

He modified and employed Horton’s concepts to revolutionise geology. And more than that: the analysis of how streams merge together is used in fields as diverse as sociology and computer science. How ironic that two figures who never met can have had such an impact together.

Which takes us back to how much those 150 or 485 “friends” on Facebook can have an influence over me. A recent paper from Dunbar’s group showed that even if you have hundreds of Facebook friends you probably only interact regularly with a tiny proportion of them.

On the other hand, such social media can be a good way of keeping contacts with old friends. Dunbar notes that while this seems a positive effect, it might reduce the time and motivation for making new friends and allow much time to be spent interacting with people widely geographically separated.

How much will this detract from face-to-face interaction? Can an online LOL (laugh out loud for those nontechnosavants among you!) have as beneficial effect as a laugh shared between two friends in the same room?

Keep in touch virtually for sure but make sure you have more than online contact and that Facebook is supplemented regularly by face-to-face time too!