Researchers Reveal How Loneliness Manifests in the Brain
A new study discovered a certain type of signature in the brains of those who experience frequent feelings of loneliness. This signature makes them stand out from others who do not feel alone as often. In lonely people, the researchers noted variations in the volume of certain brain regions and differences in the way those regions communicate with each other. The study was published in the journal Communications from nature on December 15, 2020.
The researchers analyzed MRI data, genetics, and self-reported psychological evaluations of about 40,000 middle-aged and older adults for the study. They volunteered to store this information in the UK Biobank, an open access database accessed by health scientists from around the world. They then compared the MRI data of the volunteers who experienced frequent feelings of loneliness to those who did not.
The researchers discovered some key differences after further investigation. Most of the differences occurred in the default network within the brain. This region of the brain processes thoughts such as planning the future, remembering, imagining, and thinking about others.
Key differences in the brains of those who experienced loneliness
- The predetermined networks of lonely people had stronger connections and a greater volume of gray matter in these regions.
- Loneliness also manifested itself in the fornix. That’s a bundle of nerve fibers that carry signals from the hippocampus to the predetermined network. Lonely people had a better preserved fornix than those who did not experience loneliness.
The brain’s default network helps us remember the past, plan our future, or imagine a desired situation in the present. Researchers believe that the default network correlates with loneliness because lonely people use this area of the brain more often. For example, to cope with their feelings of isolation, they may think about the past or focus intensely on the future. They may also find comfort in daydreaming or imagining ideal social situations in the present.
“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be predisposed toward internally directed thoughts, such as remembering or imagining social experiences. We know that brain regions in the predetermined network mediate these cognitive abilities, ”says Nathan Spreng of the Montreal Neurology Hospital-Institute of McGill University, and lead author of the study. “So this increased focus on self-reflection, and possibly imagined social experiences, would naturally involve the memory-based functions of the default network.”
More people feel lonely in today’s world than ever before, and our individualized and fast-paced lifestyles may be to blame. We evolve in small groups to help each other survive, so not everyone feels included in our modern world. With so many different groups, belief systems, and ways of life, some people feel like they don’t belong. This causes them to withdraw from social groups, which only worsens the underlying problem.
How Loneliness Affects Physical and Mental Health
Loneliness not only affects the mind, it can also lead to serious physical health problems. Previous studies have shown that older people who feel lonely have a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Loneliness can also result in earlier death, hypertension, wasting immune systemand a increased risk of suicide. In the modern world, researchers estimate that loneliness affects approximately 10-20% of adults who lack company and feel excluded or isolated from others.
Previous studies have shown that feeling alone It can have a similar effect on obesity or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. People who experience loneliness tend to have poorer mental health, a greater chance of developing serious psychiatric disorders, and cognitive decline. They also have an increased risk of dementia as a result of neuropathology. burden of loneliness. Lonely older adults have almost doubling the risk of developing dementia that people are not alone, even after taking mental health factors into account.
Because humans have evolved to work together in groups to survive, we naturally crave social connections. In fact, we need them for survival, as well as for physical and emotional safety. If we cannot safely cooperate in groups or bond with others, we begin to isolate ourselves due to our self-preservation instincts.
To be alone in today’s society
Modern society keeps our bodies in constant fight or flight mode, as we have not yet evolved to process so many stimuli. Our minds can feel a threat around every corner because they cannot differentiate between emotional and physical stress. Many people work online or from home in today’s world, making the loneliness epidemic even more widespread.
Of course, not everyone who spends most of their time alone feels lonely. Some people are perfectly content to spend all their time alone, while others crave social connections. It really is about individual preferences and personality types. However, for those who have unmet social needs, the feelings of loneliness it can become paralyzing.
In the study, the researchers focused on chronic feelings of isolation due to these unmet social needs, which they call the “loneliness trait.” This concept differs from the amount of time spent alone or how often a person socializes. As we said earlier, a person may have very few opportunities for socialization and not feel lonely at all. The study aimed to understand the correlation between changes in brain structure and perceived feelings of loneliness.
Says Danilo Bzdok, a researcher at The Neuro and the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, and lead author of the study:
“We are just beginning to understand the impact of loneliness on the brain. Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us to better appreciate the urgency of reducing loneliness in today’s society.
Final thoughts: Loneliness affects people in different ways, but it can have serious consequences.
Not everyone who spends a lot of time alone feels isolated or alone, but it can be debilitating for those who do. Loneliness can make a person very aware of their surroundings because they don’t know who to trust or who to contact. It can cause them to withdraw from society entirely, putting great pressure on their physical and mental health. If you see someone who seems to be alone, never hesitate to approach, it can save their life.