Authors and related work
- Computational Social Neuroscience Lab
- The Computational Social Neuroscience Lab is located in the Department of Psychology at UCLA.We study how our brains allow us to represent and navigate the social world. We take a multidisciplinary approach to research that integrates theory and methods from cognitive neuroscience, machine learning, social network analysis, and social psychology.
- Carolyn Parkinson (Scholar)
- Adam M. Kleinbaum (Scholar)
- Thalia Wheatley (Scholar)
A detailed, lay overview has been written up in the New York Times: You Share Everything With Your Bestie. Even Brain Waves.
The study took a cohort (N = 279) of graduate students in a graduate program. Students were asked to list who their friends were, from which a social network was constructed. A subset (N = 42) of these students were then asked to watch a series of videos while their brains were being monitored by an fMRI machine. The timings of brain activations across 80 regions of the brain were compared to see if there were similarities that correlated with social distance. Statistically significant similarities exist such that friends could be identified by firing patterns and timing. Particularly, individuals with one degree of separation were strongly resonant(?), while individuals with three or more degrees of separation could not be discriminated by fMRI.
My more theoretical thoughts:
This is more support for the idea that groups of people “flock” in latent belief space. If everyone fired in the same way to the videos, then the environmental influence would have been dominant – a video of a sloth or a volcano is “objectively” interpreted across a population. Instead, the interpretation of the videos is clustered around individuals with high levels of social connection. Humans spontaneously form groups of preferred sizes organized in a geometrical series approximating 3–5, 9–15, 30–45, etc. This is remarkably similar to the numbers found in social organizations such as flocks of starlings (seven). As we’ve seen in multiple studies, a certain amount of social cohesion is beneficial as away of finding resources in a noisy environment (Grunbaum), so this implies that belief space is noisy, but that beneficial beliefs can be found using similar means. Grunbaum also finds that excessive social cohesion (stampedes) decrease the ability to find resources. Determining the balance of explore/exploit with respect to depending on your neighbors/friends is uncomputable, but exploration is computationally more expensive than exploitation, so the pressure is always towards some level of stampede.
This means that in physical and belief spaces, the density and stiffness of connections controls the behavior of the social network. By adjusting the dial on the similarity aspect (increasing/decreasing stiffness of the links) should result in nomadic, flocking and stampeding behavior in belief space.
- Research has borne out this intuition: social ties are forged at a higher-than expected rate between individuals of the same age, gender, ethnicity, and other demographic categories. This assortativity in friendship networks is referred to as homophily and has been demonstrated across diverse contexts and geographic locations, including online social networks [2, 3, 4, 5] (Page 2)
- When humans do forge ties with individuals who are dissimilar from themselves, these relationships tend to be instrumental, task-oriented (e.g., professional collaborations involving people with complementary skill sets ), and short-lived, often dissolving after the individuals involved have achieved their shared goal. Thus, human social networks tend to be overwhelmingly homophilous . (Page 2)
- This means that groups can be more efficient, but prone to belief stampede
- Remarkably, social network proximity is as important as genetic relatedness and more important than geographic proximity in predicting the similarity of two individuals’ cooperative behavioral tendencies  (Page 2)
- how individuals interpret and respond to their environment increases the predictability of one another’s thoughts and actions during social interactions , since knowledge about oneself is a more valid source of information about similar others than about dissimilar others. (Page 2)
- There is a second layer on top of this which may be more important. How individuals respond to social cues (which can have significant survival value in a social animal) may be more important than day-to-day reactions to the physical environment.
- Here we tested the proposition that neural responses to naturalistic audiovisual stimuli are more similar among friends than among individuals who are farther removed from one another in a real-world social network. Measuring neural activity while people view naturalistic stimuli, such as movie clips, offers an unobtrusive window into individuals’ unconstrained thought processes as they unfold  (page 2)
- Social network proximity appears to be significantly associated with neural response similarity in brain regions involved in attentional allocation, narrative interpretation, and affective responding (Page 2)
- We first characterized the social network of an entire cohort of students in a graduate program. All students (N = 279) in the graduate program completed an online survey in which they indicated the individuals in the program with whom they were friends (see Methods for further details). Given that a mutually reported tie is a stronger indicator of the presence of a friendship than an unreciprocated tie, a graph consisting only of reciprocal (i.e., mutually reported) social ties was used to estimate social distances between individuals. (Page 2)
- I wonder if this changes as people age. Are there gender differences?
- The videos presented in the fMRI study covered a range of topics and genres (e.g., comedy clips, documentaries, and debates) that were selected so that they would likely be unfamiliar to subjects, effectively constrain subjects’ thoughts and attention to the experiment (to minimize mind wandering), and evoke meaningful variability in responses across subjects (because different subjects attend to different aspects of them, have different emotional reactions to them, or interpret the content differently, for example). (Page 3)
- I think this might make the influence more environmental than social. It would be interesting to see how a strongly aligned group would deal with a polarizing topic, even something like sports.
- Mean response time series spanning the course of the entire experiment were extracted from 80 anatomical regions of interest (ROIs) for each of the 42 fMRI study subjects (page 3)
- 80 possible dimensions. It would be interesting to see this in latent space. That being said, there is no dialog here, so no consensus building, which implies no dimension reduction.
- To test for a relationship between fMRI response similarity and social distance, a dyad-level regression model was used. Models were specified either as ordered logistic regressions with categorical social distance as the dependent variable or as logistic regression with a binary indicator of reciprocated friendship as the dependent variable. We account for the dependence structure of the dyadic data (i.e., the fact that each fMRI subject is involved in multiple dyads), which would otherwise underestimate the standard errors and increase the risk of type 1 error , by clustering simultaneously on both members of each dyad [21, 22].
- For the purpose of testing the general hypothesis that social network proximity is associated with more similar neural responses to naturalistic stimuli, our main predictor variable of interest, neural response similarity within each student dyad, was summarized as a single variable. Specifically, for each dyad, a weighted average of normalized neural response similarities was computed, with the contribution of each brain region weighted by its average volume in our sample of fMRI subjects. (Page 3)
- To account for demographic differences that might impact social network structure, our model also included binary predictor variables indicating whether subjects in each dyad were of the same or different nationalities, ethnicities, and genders, as well as a variable indicating the age difference between members of each dyad. In addition, a binary variable was included indicating whether subjects were the same or different in terms of handedness, given that this may be related to differences in brain functional organization . (page 3)
- Logistic regressions that combined all non-friends into a single category, regardless of social distance, yielded similar results, such that neural similarity was associated with a dramatically increased likelihood of friendship, even after accounting for similarities in observed demographic variables. More specifically, a one SD increase in overall neural similarity was associated with a 47% increase in the likelihood of friendship(logistic regression: ß = 0.388; SE = 0.109; p = 0.0004; N = 861 dyads). Again, neural similarity improved the model’s predictive power above and beyond observed demographic similarities, χ2(1) = 7.36, p = 0.006. (Page 4)
- To gain insight into what brain regions may be driving the relationship between social distance and overall neural similarity, we performed ordered logistic regression analyses analogous to those described above independently for each of the 80 ROIs, again using cluster-robust standard errors to account for dyadic dependencies in the data. This approach is analogous to common fMRI analysis approaches in which regressions are carried out independently at each voxel in the brain, followed by correction for multiple comparisons across voxels. We employed false discovery rate (FDR) correction to correct for multiple comparisons across brain regions. This analysis indicated that neural similarity was associated with social network proximity in regions of the ventral and dorsal striatum … Regression coefficients for each ROI are shown in Fig. 6, and further details for ROIs that met the significance threshold of p < 0.05, FDR-corrected (two tailed) are provided in Table 2. (Page 4)
- So the latent space that matters involves something on the order of 7 – 9 regions? I wonder if the actions across regions are similar enough to reduce further. I need to look up what each region does.
- Results indicated that average overall (weighted average) neural similarities were significantly higher among distance 1 dyads than dyads belonging to other social distance categories … distance 4 dyads were not significantly different in overall neural response similarity from dyads in the other social distance categories. All reported p-values are two-tailed. (Page 4)
- Within the training data set for each data fold, a grid search procedure  was used to select the C parameter of a linear support vector machine (SVM) learning algorithm that would best separate dyads according to social distance. (Page 5)
- As shown in Fig. 8, the classifier tended to predict the correct social distances for dyads in all distance categories at rates above the accuracy level that would be expected based on chance alone (i.e., 25% correct), with an overall classification accuracy of 41.25%. Classification accuracies for distance 1, 2, 3, and 4 dyads were 48%, 39%, 31%, and 47% correct, respectively. (Page 6)
- where the classifier assigned the incorrect social distance label to a dyad, it tended to be only one level of social distance away from the correct answer: when friends were misclassified, they were misclassified most often as distance 2 dyads; when distance 2 dyads were misclassified, they were misclassified most often as distance 1 or 3 dyads, and so on. (Page 6)
- The results reported here are consistent with neural homophily: people tend to be friends with individuals who see the world in a similar way. (Page 7)
- Brain areas where response similarity was associated with social network proximity included subcortical areas implicated in motivation, learning, affective processing, and integrating information into memory, such as the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, putamen, and caudate nucleus [27, 28, 29]. Social network proximity was also associated with neural response similarity within areas involved in attentional allocation, such as the right superior parietal cortex [30,31], and regions in the inferior parietal lobe, such as the bilateral supramarginal gyri and left inferior parietal cortex (which includes the angular gyrus in the parcellation scheme used ), that have been implicated in bottom-up attentional control, discerning others’ mental states, processing language and the narrative content of stories, and sense-making more generally [33, 34, 35]. (Page 7)
- However, the current results suggest that social network proximity may be associated with similarities in how individuals attend to, interpret, and emotionally react to the world around them. (Page 7)
- Both the environmental and social world
- A second, not mutually exclusive, possibility pertains to the “three degrees of influence rule” that governs the spread of a wide range of phenomena in human social networks . Data from large-scale observational studies as well as lab-based experiments suggest that wide-ranging phenomena (e.g., obesity, cooperation, smoking, and depression) spread only up to three degrees of geodesic distance in social networks, perhaps due to social influence effects decaying with social distance to the extent that the they are undetectable at social distances exceeding three, or to the relative instability of long chains of social ties . Although we make no claims regarding the causal mechanisms behind our findings, our results show a similar pattern. (Page 8)
- Does this change with the level of similarity in the group?
- pre-existing similarities in how individuals tend to perceive, interpret, and respond to their environment can enhance social interactions and increase the probability of developing a friendship via positive affective processes and by increasing the ease and clarity of communication [14, 15]. (Page 8)