The Science Of Lifelong Friends: A Montana Adventure
Lifelong friends are forged on collective experience. Join an adventure into Montana’s Wilderness and explore the science of friendship.


The fifth-largest wilderness in the lower 48, the Bob Marshall Wilderness looms intriguingly over us as we approach the area where the mountains meet the plains. ‘Has it really been three years?’ I wonder, thinking about the last time Cuiksa and I experienced the outskirts of Glacier National Park together.

It felt like yesterday.

This year, wildfires swept through much of Montana and across large portions of Glacier National Park, leading to the closure of Going To The Sun Road, a 50-mile engineering marvel that bisects the park east to west.

Just like in 2012, Cuiksa and I are thwarted from accessing the deeper parts of Glacier’s epic interior. Settling for the next best place, we head for the park’s southeastern edge to an area known as the Rocky Mountain Front. A biologically diverse wonderland, the Eastern Front is located inside of Montana's 1,009,356 acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, the largest of the three wilderness areas inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

We reminisce and hardly contain our excitement as we enter this section of the Big Sky state. We remember these dirt roads at dusk and our chance encounter with a mountain lion chasing her prey into the setting sun. Our bodies jolt with adrenaline and the thrill of anticipation as we embark on another magical adventure inside one of our nation’s greatest ecological treasures.

It’s salient moments like these, science shows, that underlie the lifelong bonds we form with our friends. A lot of people are of the opinion that adventure is an art and that friendship is a journey. But there’s also a science behind it all. These salient, noteworthy moments are stored as emotionally charged memories in our mind. These emotional responses are more profound than the mundane so far as our memory is concerned, That’s why we’ll never forget that one time we hung out with baby mountain goats in Glacier three years ago, but are unable to remember what we had for breakfast yesterday.
A picture of wild sheep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

The science of friendship is incredible. When we collectively experience novelty, feel wonderstruck by nature, overcome physical challenges, achieve goals or laugh with our friends, our brains trigger the release of “feel good” chemical cocktails. Together, these chemicals create visceral bonds between us and the people who share our experiences. These bonds are stored as various memories and signal biological connections. The more “chemical cocktails” we consume together, the stronger our memories and bonds become, thus enhancing our ability to recall the salient moments. Each recall triggers a similar, albeit less extreme, chemical cocktail to the one that started it all. It’s these experience-based connections that allow our best friends to, after just a few unforgettable shared adventures, disappear from our lives only to come back years later as if no time had passed at all.

Join our journey through time, adventure into the Bob, hike Headquarters Pass, and explore how the experiences in friendship bind us to the people who matter most.
A picture of Dagmara and Cuiska in the Bob Marshall WildernessIt’s All In The Mind | The Science of Lifelong Friends

At its core, friendship is a deliciously intriguing mix of organic neurochemicals, mainly consisting of dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, oxytocin, and endorphins. The release of these neurochemicals can be triggered by any number of variables like mountain lion encounters, sunsets, and wild spaces. The events, emotions, images, scents, and thoughts we experience alongside these triggers become encoded within our brain as memories, and the greater the thrill, the stronger the memory.

Dopamine | Novelty and First Attraction

Flashback to summer of 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio. I’m daydreaming of my escape as I watch an unimpressive sunset from my living room couch. To say that I’m bored with life would be an understatement, but with one year of college left, I can’t leave yet. Then, mid-daydream just as I’m about to descend into idle chatter with my dog, Kelvin, a fawn colored pit bull mix, my iPhone vibrates. I read it.

“Hey, are you interested in exploring some of downtown Cleveland’s darkest alleys with me and Rosie tonight? I know this bar that serves Polish sausages loaded with mac n cheese where we can bring the dogs afterward.”

In that moment, a friendship was born.

“She gets me,” I think. Considering the novelty of her proposition, I feel an immediate shot of dopamine, the happy, feel good hormone and neurotransmitter, which contributes to the formation of social memories and social preference. Dopamine is pumped out when our brains react to novelty, motivating us to keep exploring in search of further reward. It can also be triggered in a variety of other ways such as exercise, being outdoors, or reaching goals and is associated with euphoria.

Mutual friends introduced us just a few days prior and Sarah Cuiksa quickly emerged the weirdest Polish sister from another mother I could ever hope for. It was love at first sight as we instantly bonded over our European heritage and consequent mutual passion for mayonnaise-based sauces, kanapki (traditional open-faced sandwiches that the Polish are famous for), large dogs, and halibut (Poland’s greatest fish).

She was the type of girl who could, despite your greatest protests, convince you to join her on impromptu missions down unlit alleys and into abandoned buildings when all you really signed up for was sitting at a bar on W9th.

For an explorer like Cuiksa, wandering through Cleveland’s historic buildings, bridges, and tunnels, presented endless opportunities for discovery. She turned every day into a new adventure, and our brains stocked up countless memories all the while.

I had found my soulmate and as a result of our many, novelty-filled escapades, my brain grew giddy with dopamine. Our friendship became a source of great joy.

Adrenaline, Noradrenaline And The Limbic System | Hooked On Friendship

Fast forward two years later to May of 2012. I’m one year into my cross-country road trip adventures and I've finally convinced Cuiksa to meet me in Montana on her 4,500 Miles To Alaska National Park Tour. She was headed to the fishing village of Ketchikan, where she would spend the better part of the next year traveling and reporting for NPR.

We binged for a week. The natural wonders – Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman’s Hyalite Falls and Weir Hot Springs – and mountain man care-givership fueled us with a hefty dose of adrenaline and dopamine. We stood together atop several feet of snow at the foot of Oldman Lake in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park.
A picture of snow on the mountain in the Bob Marshall WildernessHiking through nearly 7 miles of alpine meadows, pine forests, aspen groves, and avalanche chutes, left our hearts racing. Gazing ahead, we were stunned at the stormy sky, the towering snow-covered glacial horn of the 9,226 foot Flinsch Peak, and the icy mountain pool that lay before us. Despite having just traversed a massive snowfield, Cuiksa and I, in our still relatively inexperienced Cleveland-esque naivety, had fully expected to arrive at a site. Our guidebooks hinted at blue water and sunshine, none to be found. We smirked in the disappointment of our folly, but were flooded in a warm sea of adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) – the physical bounty of crossing several miles of steep, deep, and trail-less snow.

The rush of adrenaline excited our hormones and furthered our cravings. This rush, encountered time and again in our epic adventures, spawned a magnetism and affinity for the outdoors that always calls us back. Pair that beckoning with the camaraderie of friendship and there’s no denying the need to experience more.

Now full of adrenaline, the limbic system, our brain’s reward center and the seat of our emotions, began lighting up like a Christmas tree as it worked to solidify our friendships via a continuous stream of euphoric, electrical current. The limbic system is the same part of the brain that becomes activated in caffeine addictions. Fundamentally, your cravings for coffee are built on the same biological equation as our desires to spend more time out there under Big Sky. Ultimately, the diminishing return of the dopamine river is the reason we want to spend every minute of every day with the object of our excitement.  

Oxytocin | Awe, Attachment And The Making Of Lifelong Friends

It’s June 2015 in Missoula, Montana, three years since our last feat of Lewis-and-Clark-like Montanan exploration. Cuiska arrived by Greyhound over two weeks ago and we’ve spent every waking moment pursuing those feel-good moments. We beam as we sit together in my Subaru, plotting our hiking options and marveling at the joy it always brings us. It’s a dry summer and much of Montana is ablaze, so we  head to the Eastern Front of the Rocky Mountains, an area on the outskirts of Glacier National Park.
Picture of a car in the foreground with the mountains in the background

“Dag!” Cuiksa exclaims in her usual tone of hyper-exaggerated excitement.

An eternal optimist, she’s always getting stoked on the simplest things.

“What?” I ask, humoring her as the eagerness of sharing what she learned washes over her smiling face.

“This place we’re going to, the Eastern Front, where Montana’s northern Rockies meet the plains is one of the most biologically diverse spots in the country and one of the world’s most preserved mountain ecosystems. Outside of Alaska, it also has the highest population density of species found anywhere in the United States,” she responds.

She was right. We stand in awe atop Headquarters Pass and I realize just how right she was. The pass is known as the gateway to the Bob Marshall Wilderness preserve, and looking over the area’s massive expanse of limestone wilderness stretching before us, we feel an ensuing rush of oxytocin (the bonding hormone which binds relationships together and promotes prosocial behavior). This wonderstruck sensation triggers the flow of oxytocin, not unlike petting your favorite dog or holding your child for the first time. Oxytocin is the key to fostering social interaction, trust and commitment, and unlike the quick high of dopamine, it is more subtle and longer lasting, leading us to become deeply attached to the people with whom we experience it.

Endorphins | Laughter And The Maintenance Of Social Bonds

I’m standing at the Missoula bus station, with tears pouring down my face. It would, at the very least, be another year before I could convince Cuiksa to re-descend on the promised land. Then, interrupting my thought train, just as I’m beginning to think about how much I’ll miss her, Cuiksa pulls out one of the semi-rotten apples that she had collected through her stay. She shoots me a half smile and with a curiously guilty look, she begins dancing to the drum of her own beat as fellow bus passengers stare nervously in her direction.

“Just wait until these people spend 30 hours on a bus back to Cleveland with her,” I think. They were in for a treat and Cuiksa’s music-less dance moves are the least of their worries.

Off in her own head, not a care in the world, Cuiksa dances on, slowly eating around the rotten parts of her apple. Unable to contain myself I start laughing, my brain, in turn, releasing a wave of endorphins. Though tears still welled in my eyes I, too was smiling now.

As I hug Cuiksa goodbye for the last time, she promises to come back for one more visit before returning abroad. I’m well aware that the moment she steps foot onto her Cleveland-bound Greyhound, she'll be off on her next great adventure, taking mud baths with African elephants, playing with the real Simba, jumping out of two-seater Cessnas, and persuading her male caregivers to run down herds of authentic water buffalo. Calmed by laughter and the resulting endorphin rush, I smile and give Cuiksa one last squeeze and know that our bonds, now strong as ever, will assure that our paths will cross again soon.

It’s this concoction of biological processes, unforgettable encounters, epic excursions and joy that pull us humans back toward the wild. Try as we may, somewhere within, you could say we’re wired to these majestic spaces and the friendships bold enough to experience the wonder together.

Science? Sure. Adventure? Absolutely.