Is there a numerical limit to love?


The Call Beyond
15 Apr 2020

During the corona virus pandemic, there has been an understandable urge that most of us have felt to ask all our near and dear ones how they are doing. In the process, we have ended up getting connected once again with many people with whom we had otherwise not communicated for years. Yet, there have been many whom neither we contacted, nor did they take the initiative. We thought about some of them off and on, decided to call or message them, but before we could do it, we simply ‘forgot’. Whether there is a numerical limit to social relationships is a subject in which Robin Dunbar took deep interest. On the basis of his study, Dunbar, a British anthropologist, proposed in the 1990s that there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, and that number is 150. This number is the people with whom we currently have a relationship; it does not include those with whom once we had a close relationship but it ended due to one reason or the other: the reason could be change of residence, change of workplace, or getting married! Those with whom the relationship ends keep getting replaced by others, but the number seldom exceeds 150. A recent study has suggested that Dunbar’s number is applicable also to online social networks. But within these 150 also, there is a stratification. Dunbar mentioned two more numbers: an inner core of about 5 people to whom we devote about 40 percent of our available social time, and 10 more people to whom we devote another 20 percent. All in all, we devote about two thirds of our time to just 15 people.

Realizing these limitations, if we failed to contact during the lockdown someone who was once pretty close to us, the person should not mind. It does not mean that we do not love that person. It is just that there is a limit to connectivity imposed, according to Dunbar, by the ‘size of our brain.’ Therefore, love for all is understandable as a mental ideal and a spiritual conviction, but in practice, the expression of love remains limited to very few. For those on the spiritual path, these few include their ‘spiritual family’; the family they feel close to because of a similar level of consciousness. It is only the Divine who can love all, and express it too! And, what an abundant expression it is!!!

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Acknowledgement : The editor first learnt about the Dunbar number from ‘Yoga Life’, January 2020, p. 12.