Wise people are less lonely. Here's why.
America might be in the throes of a loneliness epidemic, but cultivating wisdom can help.
- Loneliness can seriously damage your mental and physical health and can even impact cognition and lifespan. What's worse, it's on the rise.
- Most research on the topic has focused on the negative impact of loneliness.
- Now, new research suggests that the wiser one is, the less lonely one feels, regardless of how many social connections one has.
While he was scraping out a life in the woods by Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Many would disagree — living in solitude can be seriously taxing for social animals like human beings. Even Thoreau, famous for his self-imposed solitude, needed people in his life; Thoreau's mother made weekly visits to give him food and do his laundry for him.
Although he may not have been a perfect representation of his own philosophy of self-reliance and solitude, Thoreau was an innovative thinker and better equipped to tolerate solitude than your average man. Now, new research has helped clarify the connection between wisdom and the ability to withstand loneliness. On December 18, Dr. Dilip Jeste at the University of California, San Diego, along with his colleagues, published a study in International Psychogeriatrics in which they found that the wiser one gets, the less lonely one feels.
A loneliness epidemic
The United States has been in the throes of a loneliness epidemic. In the last 50 years, self-reported rates of loneliness have doubled, which is bad news for public health. Loneliness can cause depression, substance abuse, cognitive impairment, malnutrition, frailty, poor sleep, and slew of other undesirable effects. Loneliness is so bad for you, in fact, that former Surgeon General Vivek McCarthy said that it is associated with a lifespan "as severe as the lifespan you see with smoking 15 cigarettes a day."
Considering how dangerous loneliness is and its rise, research on the phenomenon is desperately needed. This is why Jeste and colleagues conducted a study on 340 San Diegans to learn more about loneliness and what, if anything, can defend against it.
Defining loneliness and wisdom
In an interview with CNN, Jeste said, "One thing to remember is that loneliness is subjective. Loneliness does not mean being alone; loneliness does not mean not having friends. […] Loneliness is defined as 'subjective distress.'" Essentially, it is the perceived gap between the relationships you have and the ones you want.
While we know quite a bit about the nature of loneliness, less research has been done on the connection between loneliness and wisdom. Investigating this link made sense. In addition to the anecdotal evidence of the resilience of wise individuals against loneliness, more rigorous studies suggest that the nature of wisdom is very much opposed to loneliness. According to Jeste,
Published studies including literature reviews, an expert consensus panel, and examination of an ancient scripture suggest that wisdom is a complex human trait with specific components — i.e., emotional regulation, self-reflection, pro-social behaviors such as empathy and compassion, decisiveness, social advising, tolerance of divergent values, and spirituality.
Loneliness peaks at three key ages
Using a series of validated survey instruments to measure loneliness, mental and physical health, and wisdom, Jeste and his colleagues examined loneliness and wisdom in a sample whose ages ranged from 27 to 101.
The results were not encouraging. Roughly 76 percent of the sample reported feeling moderate to severe loneliness, and the lonelier a participant was, the more likely they were to experience poor mental and physical health and poor cognition.
The researchers also found an unusual relationship between loneliness and age. There were three peaks in loneliness: one in people's late twenties, one in the mid-fifties, and one in the late eighties. Although the study was not designed to explain these results, Jeste offered some speculation: "So the late 20s is often a period of major decision-making, which is often stressful because you often end up feeling that your peers made better decisions than you did, and there's a lot of guilt about why you did this or did that."
In your mid-fifties, "You see some of your friends are dying, and really, it's the first time you realize that your life span is not forever." And, of course, in one's late eighties, good friends have or will soon pass away, the end of life is approaching, and financial difficulties may add more stress to an already stressful time.
A silver lining
Using two survey instruments (the UCLA-3 loneliness survey and the SD-WISE wisdom survey), the researchers found that loneliness and wisdom had an inverse relationship. Image source: Jeste et al., 2018
But there was an optimistic finding: The wiser a participant was, the less likely they were to feel the kind of oppressive loneliness that can be so detrimental to one's health. The researchers measured wisdom through six essential aspects: altruism, a sense of fairness, insight, general knowledge of life, the management of emotions, acceptance of divergent values, and decisiveness.
According to the research, it seems that, because they cultivate relationships with themselves as much as they do with others, wise individuals tend to be in good company — whether or not they are surrounded by friends.
The natural follow-up question to this research is how to cultivate wisdom. Unfortunately, there are many, many answers to this question that are pseudoscientific at worst or poorly researched at best. The concept of wisdom, too, is difficult to define and represents a broad range of pro-social behaviors. However, based on the definition used in this study, if we become more introspective, learn to regulate our emotions, and cultivate empathy for others, we might just find our lives become a little less lonely.
UPDATE Thursday, December 27: A previous version of this story misattributed Thoreau's experiences at Walden Pond to Emerson.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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