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Wise people are less lonely. Here's why.

America might be in the throes of a loneliness epidemic, but cultivating wisdom can help.

Hartwig HKD via Flickr
  • 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

Photo by Lucas Myers on Unsplash

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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The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
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Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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