Yesterday was spent feasting out on the patio of a friend’s home. She graciously made a delicious spread of ham, potato salad, spinach and strawberry salad and roasted asparagus. (Be jealous). As I was eating, my mind wandered back to old friends that have faded out of my life.
In the weeks following my cancer diagnosis, I was met with a flood of visitors, friends texting/writing on my Facebook wall and helped us out. It was a wonderful outpouring of love, sometimes from people I would not have assumed would have stopped by.
And yet, a few people stopped returning my calls, said the absolute wrong thing or stood me up. Boy, did that sting!
Then I learned about Dunbar’s number. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar conducted a study and determined that there is a maximum number of relationships our brains can handle.
It is suggested that the number of neocortical neurons limits the organism’s information-processing capacity and that this then limits the number of relationships that an individual can monitor simultaneously. When a group’s size exceeds this limit, it becomes unstable and begins to fragment.
Pretty crazy, right? While it hasn’t totally removed the pain of losing friendships, it has given me an answer to “why?” Some of those former friends were people I was just starting to build a closer relationship.
And there is a specific number!
“Interestingly”, he says, “the literature suggests that 150 is roughly to the number of people you could ask for a favour and expect to have it granted. Functionally, that’s quite similar to apes’ core social groups.”
Perhaps I was friend number 151; just far out enough to be dropped out of that person’s mental social circle. As a “newcomer” to their circle, there wasn’t enough of a direct tie between us to make him/her remember me.
Learning this made it easier to forgive my old friends for fading away. I look at it like this: the friends that left just made brain space available for new and better friends. Our social circles are in a state of constant flux and I’m open to riding out those ebbs and flows.