Your Brain Interprets Prolonged Loneliness as Physical Pain – Why?

Scientists are finding that loneliness has real medical consequences, and the brain sees it as pain.

Alone
Alone. (ANDREI NIEMIMÄKI)


One of humankind’s great advantages has been that we band together to accomplish more than we can on our own. You might expect that our bodies would have evolved in such a way as to promote social interaction, and you’d be right. Studies are revealing that those outside the pack — the lonely — are 25% more likely to die prematurely, according to writer Veronique de Turenne. The chronically lonely wind up with more heart disease, more metastatic cancer, and with higher risks of stroke and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Lately scientists have been learning about the biological ramifications of loneliness. Steve Cole is a professor of medicine, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory. He’s been working on this at the molecular level since the early 2000s, aided by data from the Human Genome Project. His interest had been triggered by a report on the survival rates of gay men with HIV. It appeared that closeted men died much more quickly than those who had come out. The main discernible difference between the groups was that closeted subjects were more worried about ostracization and rejection.

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John Caccioppo of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, is an expert on the physical effects of social disconnection on cellular mechanisms with a book called Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. He and Cole teamed up for a study of how gene expression varied between people who were lonely and those who weren’t. According to Cole, “We found the key antiviral response driven by so-called Type 1 interferon molecules was deeply suppressed in the lonely people relative to the non-lonely people.”

In addition — and ominously — Cole and Caccioppo also found “… that there was another block of genes that was not suppressed — in fact, it was greatly activated — and this block of genes was involved in inflammation.” Inflammation can be the engine underlying atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.

Are people isolated socially being further undermined by their own biology? There are two plausible evolutionary explanations. Cole says, “The best theory is that this pattern of altered immunology is a kind of defensive reaction mounted by your body if it thinks you are going to be wounded in the near-future,” with no one there to protect or help you. Another theory is that if you feel bad, you may be more inclined to seek out others for help. With this notion, the emotional pain of loneliness acts much like a physical pain that tells you something is wrong that needs to be addressed.

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In any event, both ideas may have made more sense historically than they do now, and the number of people describing themselves as lonely is growing quickly — Cole refers to it as an “epidemic.”

Part of it is the aging baby boomers who’ve seen their children grow up and move out, and whose friends are dying more frequently due to age. Another factor may be the way “our culture is changing in ways that invite us — in fact, almost require us — to be more lonely and disenfranchised,” according to Cole. Among those is our migration to online relationships that just aren’t individually as powerful due to the lack of personal contact. We text, we don’t call, and our families tend to be far-flung, no longer residing in physical communities together.

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Caccioppo tells de Turenne: “The level of toxicity from loneliness is stunning,” offering as an example a surprising ratio: “The mortality rate for air pollution is 5 percent. For loneliness, it’s 25 percent.”

Naomi Eisenberger is associate professor of social psychology at UCLA and director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. She developed an experiment aimed at understanding better why loneliness hurts so much emotionally, and how much like physical pain it really is. Her study involved a simple online game called Cyberball in which connected players played virtual “catch.” In each test, brain scans monitored the reaction of one player who was eventually excluded from play. Eisenberger watched the brain’s reaction. Increased activity occurred in the subject’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, the same two areas that also spring into action in response to physical pain, showing that social isolation doesn’t just feel like it hurts, it actually does on a neurological level.

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Over the course of repeated tests, Eisenberger’s team found that different subjects responded in different ways emotionally, and that the difference was reflected in brain activity. Players who reported being upset when ignored showed more activity in these brain areas, and those who shrugged it off showed less. 

Eisenberger says, “We think this is why people talk about rejection as literally hurting — because the brain processes emotional and physical pain in similar ways. Because being connected is so important to us as a species, researchers think the attachment system may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system over the course of our evolutionary history, borrowing the pain signal to highlight when we are socially disconnected.”

There was another, very surprising, finding in Eisenberger’s study that reinforced the notion of a connection between loneliness and physical pain: test subjects administered acetaminophen — aspirin — showed less activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula when they were left out of Cyberball. Aspirin appears to have reduced their emotional pain as it might a headache.

The upshot is that we need to start treating prolonged loneliness as seriously as we do physical illness. Of course, “The challenge is that the solutions are more nuanced and intricate than simply putting a bunch of lonely people together and telling them to connect,” as Cole notes. But it’s worth the effort, whether that means joining a reading group, a spiritual organization, a league, playing cards, or just finding people with similar interests. Having no one to share your experiences with — having no one to care about or who cares about you — can be profoundly disorienting and soul-crushing, and it’s turning out that it’s as bad for the body as it is for the heart.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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