Friendship can hold an exceptional place in our life stories. What is it about these connections that make them so unique? If it seems like friendships formed in adolescence are particularly special, that’s because they are. Early childhood, adolescent, and adult friendships all manifest a little differently in part because the brain works in different ways at those stages of life.
Different stages of life
Adolescence is a unique time when peer relationships take focus, and thanks to the developing brain, there are changes in the way you value, understand, and connect to friends. Teenage friends can seem attached at the hip. Scientists describe adolescence as a social reorientation as teenagers begin to spend as much or more time with their friends than with their parents.
Impact on human brain by friendship
This drive to hang with pals may be due to changes in the brain’s reward center, known as the ventral striatum. Its activation makes hanging out with others enjoyable and motivates you to spend more time with them. Neuro imaging studies show that this region is highly reactive during your teenage years, which may explain why adolescents seem to place a higher value on social interactions than children or adults. Teenage friendships can also feel more intimate than the friendships of your childhood. This deeper connection is possible thanks to improvements in what scientists call Theory of Mind.
Theory of Mind
Theory of Mind is the ability to understand others’ emotions, thoughts, motivations, and points of view, and to realize that they may be different from your own. While it may seem intuitive, this ability hinges on the careful coordination of various brain regions, sometimes referred to as the social brain. Babies begin to develop Theory of Mind around 18 months or so. Before that, it’s thought they believe that everyone perceives and knows exactly what they know. It was once considered to be fully developed by age five, but scientists now know that Theory of Mind continues to improve and mature well into your teenage years and beyond.
Likewise, regions within the social brain show increased connectivity during adolescence compared with childhood. As a result, teens can better understand their friend’s perspectives, allowing for deeper connections to flourish. In the closest friendship, it can almost feel as if you’re metaphysically connected—two bodies and minds, perfectly in sync. And there is science to this!
Your ability to connect with others somewhat depends on the coordination of actions, emotions, physiology, and thoughts. This is what psychologists call interpersonal synchrony. You first show signs of the ability to sync with others as infants—synchronizing movements and babbling with your parents. As you get older and spend more time outside the home, you increasingly show this synchrony with your peers. For example, imagine walking down the street with a friend. Often without consciously thinking, you stroll at the same pace and follow the same path. You and your best friend may not be only on the same page, but also scientifically, in step.