17. Relationship Gardens

Note: This is the next release from a book.

Over millennia, our lifestyles co-evolved with our brain’s social capacity.  By the time we began settling in villages around 10,000 years ago, we had two million years of hardwired social superpowers that placed us in large social structures which maximized our social capacity.  

Given our max capacity of around 150 living relationships, it should be unsurprising that we’ve been organizing in noticeable social clusters of 100-200 people for recorded history: tribal villages, army companies, churches, and corporate teams.  Remote villages around the world are still the visual remnant of these clusters.  I recently visited these two rural villages in Haiti.

Notice that each one has about 150 residents, who know one another like family, but hardly know those in the next village, only ½ mile away.  This is typical in the developing world.


Our relationship garden is more complex than a single number, though.  Dunbar said the full spread looks like this:

Each of these friendships takes time and emotional processing.  Our closest relationships with our best buds take about 40% of our social time, and require years of shared experiences to grow.  Evolution did not wire us for quick friend turnover.   We can’t undo relationships or magically grow new ones overnight.  Dunbar’s evidence showed that, once we’re in our 20’s, our inner circle of 3-5 isn’t likely to change much, and if it does, someone must be shoved out in order to add more.[1]

This spread of concentric friend circles optimized our social abilities within a balanced framework of deep and broad friendships.  More than just maximizing network power, though, it stabilized our psychosocial brain within a “relational mesh.”  

Lots of diverse relationships makes each of us socially stronger and psychologically balanced, similar to how diverse genetics make us physically healthier.  Our relationship gardens keep us in psychosocial homeostasis.  Beyond just balance, having a common unified system of friends in a circle provides us a feeling of strength and support that 150 disconnected friends can not.[2]

This social support is monumentally important to not only our brains, but our bodies.  The top 2 factors in prolonging our lives have been found to be social integration in a circles such as this, and deep close relationships.[3]

As resilient as we are, our entire body system of hormones and trip sensors are precariously situated right in the middle of this mesh. To say we are affected by it is too simple.  We were built to live into it.  

To get here, we had to develop the hardware and software of a superior relator and communicator all along the way.  The social brain we inherited had long evolved to communicate broadly and deeply in community groups, millions of years ago all before we ever uttered a single word.  

This brain was the ultimate connecting machine.


[1] That’s because life actually DOES get faster to you as we get older.  Your 4 College Years (age 18-21) occupy as much of your perception as the 13 years from age 67-80.  VSauce can explain it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LyCC6jjcx8 

[2] This study found that having friends who know each other gives us a stronger sense of support than having disconnected friends. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201007085609.htm

[3]  See this awesome talk by Susan Pinker: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life?language=en Also, this study: Holt-Lunstad, J., & Smith, T. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

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