Friends With Many Benefits

Managing editor Sandra Upson introduces the January/February 2014 issue of Scientific American MIND
Couple looking at each other.

Aaron Goodman

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“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love,” Jane Austen writes in her 1817 novel Northanger Abbey. What if one's friend is the source of those pangs? Can he or she still be a friend? Journalist Carlin Flora explores this question in our cover story, "Can Men and Women Be Just Friends?".

Despite massive gains in gender equality, platonic friendship between heterosexual men and women still draws some suspicion. This intuition rests on two related assumptions. First, that physical attraction is inevitable in such a union. Second, that selfishness or subterfuge weakens the bond as a friend angles for more intimacy. As Flora reveals, neither of these conjectures holds up. And should unrequited feelings arise, she offers tips from science to help friends navigate mismatched expectations.

We rely on friends for good conversation—but we also maintain a silent inner dialogue with ourselves. Studies suggest that such self-talk helps us craft the conscious narrative of our lives. Read about our inner dialogue in “Getting to Know the Voices in Your Head,” by Ferris Jabr, an associate editor at Scientific American.

Talking through a task—this time aloud—appears to help children with autism overcome language difficulties, Jabr notes. A new trend in autism therapy targets such deficits at age one or two, when the brain is still highly malleable. See “New Therapies Take Early Aim at Autism,” by journalist Luciana Gravotta.

Early intervention is also the goal in another public health concern, the brain deterioration that multiple hits to the head can trigger. In “How Football Destroys the Brain” neuroscientists Jacqueline C. Tanaka and Gregg B. Wells investigate the rapidly evolving science of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disorder involving damaged neurons that threatens to reshape the game of football.

If you take one thing away from this issue, let it be this: integrity at the cellular level, the dynamics of our inner universe and the richness of our social world contribute equally to mental well-being. May your brain thrive on all levels.

This article was originally published with the title "Controversial Friends."

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