The Dunbar number is a numeric measurement of the human brain’s capacity to form stable social relationships. The measurement was developed from the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who specializes in evolution and primate behavior. The implications of his work suggest that the size of the primate (and human) neocortex limits the number of social relationships that the brain is capable of handling; Dunbar approximates that the average limit is 150, with a confidence interval ranging from 100 to 230. Primates develop and maintain these relationships through social grooming, and much of Dunbar’s work focuses on how humans interact with each other in ways analogous to primate behavior. For instance, good hygiene, language, and physical intimacy are all elements of social grooming and crucial to our development of human relationships.

Dunbar’s number is an interesting concept for just about any topic that involves networking, applicable to hippie communes, business circles, or social networking websites like Facebook. Generally speaking, Dunbar’s number is only useful when concerning networks in which the members have incentives to remain in close contact with each other. Still, 150 is a good number to keep in mind when you think about your extended network of friends, acquaintances, and loved ones— especially when you’re trying to figure out who’s worth the mental effort to keep in touch with, and who’s not.

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