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What Loneliness Can Teach Us About Our Brains

Williamsburg Therapy Group looks into what loneliness can teach us about our brains.
The Social Self – For many of us there are times where we find our social lives have shrunk. A move to a new place, a recent breakup, or working long irregular work hours, whatever the cause, we can find ourselves unexpectedly lonely. The regular tenor of our days become more muted, and it seems like there is less and less to look forward to. More than just being alone, real loneliness is a mental state that affects our health and wellbeing. Even at its most benign, loneliness can lead to decrease in energy or exercise, poor sleep and diet. Chronic loneliness can lead to depression, further antisocial behavior, and substance abuse, in extreme cases.
 
The Social Brain

Many animals congregate socially, but mammals show the most need for grouping and connection by far. Staying in groups was a way to defend against predators meaning our socializing was once a means of survival. As our brains evolved and grew proportionally larger to our bodies than any other mammal, our need for social interaction did not decrease, but rather increased. Language developed along with a new way to commune, art and music too, to relay experience that is beyond articulation. Followed still by moral behaviors, customs, celebrations, which are just a few things that define our humanity. To be human is to recognize ourselves in a collective. Being lonely then is not only the experience of being removed from that group feeling, it is also the inability to express what comes naturally to us as human beings.

In his book Social, neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab argues that the brain is the center of the social self. Its primary purpose is social thinking. “Just as human beings have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.” Rather than being an evolutionary flaw, our ability to feel social pain, grief, or loneliness is in fact a necessary human trait.

To test this theory, Lieberman and his colleagues decided to place individuals in a situation of social exclusion. The exercise was simple, play a virtual game with two other subjects. Everyone passes a ball to each other, but eventually the other two subjects start passing only to each other and leave out the studied subject. While mapping the subjects brains, Lieberman was able to discover that the part of the brain that activates social pain, more commonly known as “hurt feelings”, is the same part of the brain that is activated when we experience physical pain.

There are several things we can take away from this. Mainly that social pain and physical pain is on equal terms, at least from a neurological standpoint. What we once thought of as a metaphor, “my feelings are hurt” turns out that social pain and physical pain are connected. To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg, as Lieberman puts it in his book. The more rejected the participant said he or she felt, the more activity there was in the part of the brain that processes the distress of physical pain. When we feel physically lonely it evokes a feeling of emotional loss. Feelings of pain caused by loneliness are not just poetic phrasing, but a valid physical experience of pain that deserves the same seriousness as a lost limb or fatal illness.

Lieberman’s studies indicate that crucial to our survival as mammals, we need social connection in addition to physical needs such as food, water, and shelter. And that originates in the bond babies and caregivers are wired to have. A cry from a baby illicites an instinct and a drive to respond to the needs of that baby. “By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents”

Furthermore, it can give us a new understanding of why we feel grief, and why we have instincts to stay together. Seemingly normal aspects of our current lives, scrolling absently on our phones, working long hours, means that we have ignored a part of us that is true to our nature- that being with others in a meaningful way brings us joy. The brain has a fundamental desire for social harmony, making our mental well being linked to our social connectedness. While it is emotionally satisfying, and evolutionarily necessary to be social, the option to connect is always available. But there are strategies to strengthen and create meaningful bonds even under isolating circumstances.

Managing Lonely Feelings
 
Quality Over Quantity

Having meaningful connections even if we don’t see that person all the time, is still more emotionally satisfying than not. Make sure to put in the work. Keeping in touch with family and friends regularly builds and maintains our connections.

Avoid Too Much Screen Time And Social Media

Having a hunch that the more time one spent on social media, the more lonely they feel, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh Brian Primack surveyed the most active social media users age group, 19-34, “It turns out that the people who reported spending the most time on social media — more than two hours a day — had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on those sites.” ​Online relationships can have a lot of use and value in our lives by helping us stay connected. However, when we sacrifice face to face contact for virtual relationships, it can lead to greater feelings of isolation.

Lean Into The Things You Like To Do Alone

Reading, journaling, drawing, learning a skill, and meditating are ways to connect with yourself. Cultivating pleasure and joy in things you can do alone can build security in yourself. Relying on yourself for quality time and company is an opportunity to practice self care and redirect positive attention back to yourself.

Volunteer

Connecting with other people, even in the most basic ways, makes you happier—especially when you know they need your help. If you are experiencing a dip in social activity, or anxiety around social interactions, volunteering time and effort into something meaningful

Professional Help Is Always An Option.

From neurological evidence, we know that being social is important to our emotional well being as well as the way we move forward as a species. This puts the necessity of lonely feelings into a broader focus. Understanding the emotional element of loneliness in this context can remove stigma and motivate people to seek help if these inherently natural feelings become chronic and unmanageable.

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