A large study shows changes in the brain scans of lonely people in the area involved in imagination, memory, and daydreaming.
- A study of 40,000 participants shows specific signatures in the brain scans of lonely people.
- Loneliness is linked to variations in grey matter volume and connections in the brain default network.
- This area of the brain is connected to the use of imagination, memory, future planning, and daydreaming.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the worldwide spread of loneliness that had been alarming researchers prior to the pandemic. A new study pinpoints a distinct signature that can be observed in the brains of lonely people and makes the case that social isolation leads to changes in the areas of the brain using memory and imagination.
The scientists defined loneliness as "the subjective perception of social isolation, or the discrepancy between one's desired and perceived levels of social connection." They based their findings on a large trove of information from about 40,000 participants aged 40 to 69. This was culled from UK's Biobank, an open-access to database for international health scientists. The researchers had access to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, as well as genetics and psychological self-assessments.
The scientists compared the MRI data of the study participants who said they often felt lonely versus those who didn't and discovered key differences. These revolved around the default network, an area of the brain responsible for memories, as well as social cognition and imagination. It is employed when we focus on the past or think about the future or daydream about a different present.
Lonely people's default networks were wired together stronger and unexpectedly had more grey matter volume. Lonely people also seemed to show more preservation in the structure of the fornix—the nerve fiber bundle that transmits signals from the hippocampus to the default network.
What is responsible for the brain differences between people who feel lonely and those who don't? The scientists think the answer lies in the function of the default network. Lonely people tend to use their imagination, memories, and hopes more, contend the researchers, in an effort to manage their isolation.
Scientists show what loneliness looks like in the brain
The study's lead author, Nathan Spreng from The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University in Canada, linked the use of the inner world by lonely people to their unexpected findings:
"In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences," stated Spreng in a press release. "We know these cognitive abilities are mediated by the default network brain regions. So this heightened focus on self-reflection, and possibly imagined social experiences, would naturally engage the memory-based functions of the default network."
The scientists think their research can help paint a fuller picture of loneliness and how to treat it, as the amount of people experiencing such feelings grows, affecting their health. Studies on older people showed loneliness was linked to a stronger risk of dementia and cognitive issues.
"Human evolution has been shaped by selection pressures towards enhanced inter-individual cooperation, write the scientists in their study. "Social interactions are crucial for survival, and fulfillment. Our species' extraordinary reliance on other individuals has led to the characterization of humans as the "ultra-social animal". Consequently, the absence of sufficient social engagement can impose substantial physical and psychological costs."
Check out the study, published in the journal Nature Communications.
MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.
- A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
- Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
- Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic started, an epidemic of loneliness existed. This is not only unpleasant for those involved but has measurably adverse effects on their mental and physical health. The current outbreak has only made an existing problem worse.
A new study undertaken by researchers at MIT and the Sulk Institute suggests that our need for socialization is as hardwired as our need for food and water. It finds that the same part of our brain that hungers for food after a day of fasting longs for other people after isolation.
People sometimes crave socialization, literally.
Forty participants underwent 10 hours of either social isolation or fasting before being placed in an MRI machine. Those who fasted had their brains imaged while viewing pictures of food; those emerging from isolation viewed photos of socializing people.
The areas of the brain related to hunger pains, reward, and movements, the substantia nigra pars compacta and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), are also associated with cravings for food or addictive substances. When those who fasted viewed images of food, these regions of their brains lit up. Most interestingly, the same brain regions lit up when those who had been isolated for 10 hours saw pictures of other people socializing.
Test subjects also filled out questionnaires during and after the fasting and isolation periods. Not only did this confirm that people felt cravings for what they had missed, but that the effect was similar in both cases.
They also showed that very hungry people were less responsive to images of socializing, suggesting that "hanger," the state of being irritable as a result of hunger, is a demonstrable state.
How can I use this information? I’m asking for a friend.
The obvious takeaway is that it is perfectly normal to feel a need for interaction with others after an extended bout of isolation. Our brains treat some form of interaction as a basic need that must be met. While not shown as clearly in humans, not getting these needs often drives mice to stress eat, a finding that makes a great deal of sense in light of these new findings.
Exactly how we can meet the need for socialization outside of just meeting up with people (a tricky proposition at the time of writing) remains up for debate. Anybody who has tried a Zoom party during the pandemic can attest to it just not being as nice as seeing friends in person.
The study's authors are aware of this issue and note that:
"A vital question is how much, and what kinds of, positive social interaction is sufficient to fulfill our social needs and thus eliminate the neural craving response. Technological advances offer incessant opportunities to be virtually connected with others, despite physical separations. Yet, some have argued that using social media only exacerbates subjective feelings of isolation."
Unfortunately, the study cannot offer us an answer to this question just yet.
Like always, there are limitations to this study.
This study involved 40 participants. While its essential finding is likely to be generally applicable, exactly how applicable it is to the broader population cannot be known with certainty from such a small group. The participants were also healthy, well-connected young adults who might react to various problems differently than other demographic groups.
Their tendency to do so while being the focus of endless studies on psychology is a well-recorded problem.
Likewise, the fact that the participants knew they would only be isolated for 10 hours may have impacted how they reacted to the isolation—it is often easier to endure something when you know precisely when it will end.
Getting around that in future experiments may prove impossible. From an ethical standpoint, it would be difficult to structure an experiment on humans predicated on the idea that they will be kept isolated from all social interaction indefinitely.
Lastly, while all of the participants were quite hungry after 10 hours, there were enough variations in how lonely people felt after isolation to suggest a more significant variance in need for socialization than in demand for food. While this seems obvious, we all know both introverts and extroverts; it does make it more challenging to determine how much social interaction counts as a "need" that the brain craves just as it craves food.
As usual, more research is needed.
The idea that humans are social animals existed long before modern neuroscience was possible. Now, we can see exactly what happens in the brain when we can't socialize. While the final word on the subject is still to be said, it might be time to give a friend a call.
Different kinds of loneliness – Having poor quality relationships is associated with greater distress than having too few
According to a new study, there are 4 different types of loneliness.
Loneliness not only feels bad, experts have characterised it as a disease that increases the risk of a range of physical and psychological disorders. Some national prevalence estimates for loneliness are alarming. Although they can be as low as 4.4 per cent (in Azerbaijan), in other countries (such as Denmark) as many as 20 per cent of adults report being either moderately or severely lonely.
However, there's no established way of identifying loneliness. Most diagnostic methods treat it as a one-dimensional construct: though it can vary in degrees, someone is either "lonely", or they're not. A new approach, outlined in a paper published recently in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, suggests that loneliness should in fact be divided into three sub-types, two of which are associated with poor mental health.
Philip Hyland at Trinity College Dublin and colleagues studied a nationally representative sample of 1,839 US adults aged between 18 and 70, all of whom had experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. (This allowed the team to also look for associations between childhood or adult trauma and loneliness.) Most were married or living with a partner.
Participants completed a six-item scale that measured feelings of "social loneliness" (focusing on perceptions of the quantity of one's social relationships) and "emotional loneliness" (which focused on perceptions of the quality of one's relationships). They also completed questionnaires assessing levels of childhood and adult trauma, depression and anxiety, and their psychological wellbeing.
Following convention, the 17.1 per cent of participants who scored a certain amount above the average loneliness score for the sample (by more than one standard deviation) were classified as "lonely" – a figure comparable to that found previously in many other countries.
However, the researchers also used a statistical technique to look for qualitative differences between the participants' loneliness responses, and this revealed four distinct classes.
The first class – which they called "low loneliness" – was characterised by low scores on both types of loneliness, social and emotional. Just over half the participants fell into this category. The second class – "social loneliness" – making up 8.2 per cent of the sample, comprised people low on emotional loneliness, but high on social loneliness. The third class – "emotional loneliness" – made up just over a quarter of the total sample and was characterised by the opposite pattern of high emotional loneliness but low levels of social loneliness. People in the fourth and final "social and emotional loneliness" class, accounting for 12.4 per cent of the sample, scored high for both types of loneliness.
The researchers found a clear gradient of psychological distress across the classes. People in the low loneliness class were, predictably, least distressed, followed by people in the "social loneliness" class, then the "emotional loneliness" class, and finally the "social and emotional loneliness" class. In fact, people in both these last two classes had levels of symptoms of depression, anxiety and negative psychological wellbeing that were reflective of a psychiatric disorder.
In other words, quality of relationships appears more important to mental health than the sheer number of them."These results indicate that while the experience of social loneliness is associated with slight diminutions in overall mental health, relative to the low loneliness class, the experience of emotional loneliness has a substantially greater, and more negative impact on overall mental health status," the researchers write. "The combination of social and emotional loneliness is associated with the poorest mental health status," they note.
People who belonged to the emotional loneliness class were more likely to be female, younger than average for the group, not in a relationship and to have suffered an increased number of childhood traumas. (Every childhood traumatic experience increased the odds of belonging to the emotional loneliness class by 28 per cent.) The same associations were true for the "social and emotional" loneliness class – except they were also characterised by a greater number of adult traumas.
At 39.0 per cent, the total percentage of participants who fell into the two loneliness classes characterised by clinically relevant levels of psychological distress was much higher than the 17.1 per cent loneliness figure obtained using the conventional one-dimensional approach. "This finding indicates that by recognising naturally occurring subtypes of loneliness, the number of people experiencing a form… that is likely to be of clinical relevance is more than double the number identified when loneliness is conceptualised as a unidimensional construct," the researchers note.
The work suggests that in assessing loneliness, whether in an individual or at a national level, it's important to recognise there are various subtypes. It also supports findings from some other studies that it's the quality, not quantity, of your relationships that really matters. As the researchers conclude: "From a societal perspective, and in the interests of reducing the burden of psychological distress, efforts should be made to enhance the quality of social connections as opposed to promoting the virtues of larger social networks."
Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. So how do we reverse it?
Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. In the space of just one generation, we've closed ourselves off and now spend more time in front of screens — on average, 10 hours a day according to a Neilsen report — than we do with our loved ones. Author and journalist and author Johann Hari explains that this isn't at all how the human species is supposed to behave. He suggests more actual face time with people, more community, and above all: becoming the social creatures that we have been for millennia. Johann's new book is the fascinating Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
Time on your own means time to tell the difference between right and wrong.
In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe described the ‘mad energy’ of an ageing man who roved the streets of London from dusk till dawn. His excruciating despair could be temporarily relieved only by immersing himself in a tumultuous throng of city-dwellers. ‘He refuses to be alone,’ Poe wrote. He ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime … He is the man of the crowd.’
Like many poets and philosophers through the ages, Poe stressed the significance of solitude. It was ‘such a great misfortune’, he thought, to lose the capacity to be alone with oneself, to get caught up in the crowd, to surrender one’s singularity to mind-numbing conformity. Two decades later, the idea of solitude captured Ralph Waldo Emerson’s imagination in a slightly different way: quoting Pythagoras, he wrote: ‘In the morning, – solitude; … that nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company.’ Emerson encouraged the wisest teachers to press upon their pupils the importance of ‘periods and habits of solitude’, habits that made ‘serious and abstracted thought’ possible.
In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the polis. For her, freedom was tethered to both the private sphere – the vita contemplativa – and the public, political sphere – the vita activa. She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.
In 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust. How could anyone, she wanted to know, perpetrate such evil? Surely only a wicked sociopath could participate in the Shoah. But Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder.
Just as Poe suspected that something sinister lurked deep within the man of the crowd, Arendt recognised that: ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.
‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong,’ Arendt wrote, ‘because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even another murderer.’ It is not that unthinking men are monsters, that the sad sleepwalkers of the world would sooner commit murder than face themselves in solitude. What Eichmann showed Arendt was that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’.
But what if, we might ask, we become lonely in our solitude? Isn’t there some danger that we will become isolated individuals, cut off from the pleasures of friendship? Philosophers have long made a careful, and important, distinction between solitude and loneliness. In The Republic (c380 BCE), Plato proffered a parable in which Socrates celebrates the solitary philosopher. In the allegory of the cave, the philosopher escapes from the darkness of an underground den – and from the company of other humans – into the sunlight of contemplative thought. Alone but not lonely, the philosopher becomes attuned to her inner self and the world. In solitude, the soundless dialogue ‘which the soul holds with herself’ finally becomes audible.
Echoing Plato, Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it. In solitude, Arendt never longed for companionship or craved camaraderie because she was never truly alone. Her inner self was a friend with whom she could carry on a conversation, that silent voice who posed the vital Socratic question: ‘What do you mean when you say …?’ The self, Arendt declared, ‘is the only one from whom you can never get away – except by ceasing to think.’
Arendt’s warning is well worth remembering in our own time. In our hyper-connected world, a world in which we can communicate constantly and instantly over the internet, we rarely remember to carve out spaces for solitary contemplation. We check our email hundreds of times per day; we shoot off thousands of text messages per month; we obsessively thumb through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, aching to connect at all hours with close and casual acquaintances alike. We search for friends of friends, ex-lovers, people we barely know, people we have no business knowing. We crave constant companionship.
But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.