Most of us, no matter how connected we may be in an age of constant interaction with others via social networks, have experienced feelings of loneliness or social isolation at some point in our lives.
But the degree to which you experience loneliness, some scientists say, may actually cause your brain to differ from the brains of others in significant ways.
Measuring The Effects Of Loneliness
A recent study published in the journal Cortex set out to examine the evolutionary role of loneliness, and what they found was intriguing.
“Being on the social perimeter is not only sad, it is dangerous,” the study authors wrote.
“Our evolutionary model of the effects of perceived social isolation (loneliness) on the brain as well as a growing body of behavioral research suggests that loneliness promotes short-term self-preservation, including an increased implicit vigilance for social, in contrast to nonsocial, threats.”(1)
This hyper-vigilance was shown to manifest in the brain in marked, physical ways – ways that differed significantly from the ways the brains of non-lonely people showed “normal” levels of vigilance and anxiety.
The researchers used electroencephalography, or EEG technology to measure the brain activity of study participants, as well as performing what are called Stroop Tests on participants(2). Stroop tests are designed to assess how individuals’ brains work with regards to automatic and subconscious influences.
When subjected to these tests, the brains of lonely people responded with increased markers of anxiety and vigilance, as though responding to threats – particularly when exposed to words and phrases with social connotations, such as “belonging”. Meanwhile, the brains of non-lonely individuals responded to words with social connotations the same way they responded to any other words.
This helps to illustrate how lonely peoples’ brains are conditioned to code certain stimuli as threats, in ways which other peoples’ brains are not.
Loneliness In Our Modern Era
According to Psychology Today, these effects of prolonged feelings of loneliness can cause us to become abrasive and defensive in response to perceived social danger – even when the danger isn’t actually there(3). However, as Psychology Today points out, the image we have of a typical “lonely” individual may not necessarily be accurate.
“For one thing, lonely people are no lower-status than anyone else,” writes author Robin Marantz Hernig. “… For another thing, lonely people are not necessarily more isolated… people grow lonely because of the gloomy stories they tell themselves. And, in a cruel twist, the loneliness itself can further distort their thinking, making them misread other people’s good intentions, which in turn causes them withdraw to protect themselves from further rejection – and causes other people to keep them at arm’s length.”
Human beings are social creatures, but it’s easy for us to fall into isolation, even in our modern era, where Facebook and Twitter keep us connected even to people who are thousands of miles away. For our health, it is important to surround ourselves with friends and loved ones, and focus on building strong relationships with the people around us.