Ever Heard of Dunbar’s Number?

I hadn’t either, until recently. Remember Avogadro’s Number from your days of yore back in chemistry class? Avogadro figured out how many molecules comprise a mole of a substance, and this happened to be of such significance that 6.022 X 10 to the 23rd power will forever be known as Avogadro’s number. Smart guy, that Avogadro.

Dunbar’s Number, named after Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist, is much, much smaller and easier to remember. It’s about 150, plus or minus, and no, that doesn’t refer to molecules or moles, but it does refer to a certain kind of chemistry, the chemistry of friendship and the size of social groups.

“Many years ago Mr. Dunbar famously noticed that there is a tight correlation between the size of a primate’s brain and the size of the social group its species generally forms. On this basis human beings should live in groups of around 150. The neat thing about this prediction was the way it seemed to fit the number of good friends most people have, as measured by the length of address books, the size of hunter-gatherer bands, the population of neolithic villages and the strength of army units. In recent years, Facebook has also seemed to confirm the hunch, with rosters of friends often settling around the Dunbar number.

Now Mr. Dunbar, who teaches at Oxford, has taken the argument a step further in work yet to be published, by correlating the size of a specific part of an individual’s brain with the size of that individual’s social network. He and his colleagues asked volunteers to list the initials of every person they had had social contact or communication with over the previous week, before stepping into a magnetic resonance scanner to measure the volume of their “orbitomedial prefrontal cortex.” Sure enough, the size of this lobe of the brain correlates well with the size of a person’s circle of friends. (It remains to be seen, of course, which causes which.)”  http://tinyurl.com/685ukqp

I have to admit that I find this whole concept fascinating, especially the “social brain hypothesis” which argues that we use our minds to imagine what others are thinking, and the more “others” we have around us, the more we have to use our brains, but there seems to be a limit as to how many “others” our brains can hold, somewhere around 150.

If you get a chance, and you’re interested in stuff like this, read the article. You just might be motivated to get out there and broaden our social network.


About M.J.Deare

I am a writer, actively researching topics of interest. I am also a graduate of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, with a degree in English, and have a master's degree from the University of Memphis. Born in New Orleans, I lived there until moving to northwest Arkansas and from there to Memphis, Tennessee. My husband and I currently reside in The Woodlands, Texas.
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