I recently read a book which begins with a woman, knocking on her neighbour’s door with the intention of borrowing some tomatoes, but she instead finds his dead body. She quickly comes to realise that she in fact does not care in the slightest. She is not shocked by this discovery of her neighbour’s corpse but instead by the lack of emotion she feels when she does. She has lived merely metres from this man for two years, so why was she not upset that he was dead? This triggers her to question her life, society, and generally lose the plot.
Following a lot of google searches she stumbles upon the theory of the 'Monkeysphere'. Also known as Dunbar’s number, this is the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people who a person can maintain a stable social relationship with. This number is found to correlate to size of brain, and for humans the average brain size suggests a maximum social grouping of 150 relationships. Dunbar, an anthropologist, explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”. The specific region of the brain which these social relationships are associated with is known as the orbitofrontal cortex, situated in the frontal lobe, which deals with social and emotional processing.
This theory offers an explanation why society does not function as smoothly as we would hope. We, obviously, live within a social grouping much larger than 150 – the current UK population is 65 million. For example not returning a wallet that you find on the floor, or not cleaning up your flatmate's cutlery after you've used it. Neither of these things are necessarily mean - yes, they may not be moral, but they aren't malicious. Equally they are not kind. This is because the drunk person who lost their purse or your flatmate in halls are not close enough in your monkeysphere for you to care. The relationship is commensal; when one of you benefits, the other derives neither benefit nor harm, and thus there is no motivation for you to care.
Social media offers us a more simple understanding of relationships: more friends = more popular. On Facebook people often have hundreds of friends, if not thousands (I currently have 969 *chuckle*). But what use is this to us knowing that only a small fraction of those ‘friends’ actually have any connection to us other than that of a click of a mouse? How will I react when that 969th friend loses their job, gets diagnosed with an illness, or even dies? I’m not sure. So why is it that we make ourselves feel guilty when we react unphased to bad news about distant acquaintances who once sat behind us in maths in secondary school? It’s an unreasonable expectation of ourselves and no one needs to be self-punished for a lack of mourning.
To clarify, I believe there is a difference between feeling empathy for someone and personally caring. I would compare it to when a celebrity dies – I feel terribly sad about the world’s loss of talent (or lack of) and for their close family and friends, but I personally do not feel any great loss.
When I discussed this theory with one of my friends he asked me “does it work like a one-in-one-out system? If your monkeysphere is full, can you swap one person out for another?”. Now I am not Kanye’s biggest fan at the moment for reasons I doubt I need to explain but this reminded me of the lyric “people in your life are seasons”- this idea that in order to create a new relationship, one may have to detach from another; one-in-one-out, just like The Love Inn on a friday night. We punish ourselves for losing touch with distant relatives or childhood friends who move away, when in reality its maybe simply not biologically possible to hold on to those relationships without shielding ourselves from those directly surrounding us. You wouldn’t expect your body to lift more than your own weight, so why expect your brain to keep track of more relationships than possible? I realise this analogy has its flaws and may not apply to everyone but I assume that body builders are far too busy lifting weights and fake tanning to be worrying about the size of their monkeyspheres.
Pushing yourself too hard to expand your monkeysphere can make you vulnerable. When I first came to university the intense socialising and making/breaking of temporary bonds was overwhelming. I am very much a people person – I will talk to anyone who sits next to me on the train. But for some reason, this time, it was more damaging than pleasurable. I felt my self-consciousness growing. The difference – each time I started a conversation with someone new I was subconsciously weighing up in the head whether they were worth entry into my monkeysphere, or I into theirs, as the potential of friendship was more pressuring than the chat with a stranger on the bus who I knew I wouldn’t see again.
There’s a good reason why people advise to keep your friendship group small, and perhaps it’s purely because we are not biologically engineered to be as popular as we would desire. This is no means an undermining of those of you who have over 150 relationships but be warned; you may be considered a super human and if you don’t watch out the government are sure to soon kidnap you and conduct experiments.
So what does this all mean? That society was doomed to fail from the start? Potentially. To stop making new friends? Defo no! But for now, simply be reminded not to pressure yourself into befriending every smiling face you bump into on the street, or to keep in contact with every chatterbox you added on snapchat in smokers, and to equally not feel ashamed when you grow apart from friends far away. It’s just not biologically possible, however lovely it would be.