Researchers shed new light on connection between brain and loneliness

February 15, 2009

Social isolation affects how people behave as well as how their brains operate, a study at the University of Chicago shows.

The research, presented Sunday at a symposium, "Social Emotion and the Brain," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is the first to use fMRI scans to study the connections between perceived social isolation (or loneliness) and activity in the brain. Combining fMRI scans with data relevant to social behavior is part of an emerging field examining brain mechanisms—an approach to psychology being pioneered at the University of Chicago.

Researchers found that the ventral striatum—a region of the brain associated with rewards—is much more activated in non-lonely people than in the lonely when they view pictures of people in pleasant settings. In contrast, the temporoparietal junction—a region associated with taking the perspective of another person—is much less activated among lonely than in the non-lonely when viewing pictures of people in unpleasant settings.

"Given their feelings of social isolation, lonely individuals may be left to find relative comfort in nonsocial rewards," said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Professor in Psychology at the University. He spoke at the briefing along with Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University.

The ventral striatum, which is critical to learning, is a key portion of the brain and is activated through primary rewards such as food and secondary rewards such as money. Social rewards and feelings of love also may activate the region.

Cacioppo, one of the nation's leading scholars on loneliness, has shown that loneliness undermines health and can be as detrimental as smoking. About one in five Americans experience loneliness, he said. Decety is one of the nation's leading researchers to use fMRI scans to explore empathy.

They were among five co-authors of a paper, "In the Eye of the Beholder: Individual Differences in Perceived Social Isolation Predict Regional Brain Activation to Social Stimuli," published in the current issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

In the study, 23 female undergraduates were tested to determine their level of loneliness. While in an fMRI scanner, the subjects were shown unpleasant pictures and human conflict as well as pleasant things such as money and happy people.

The subjects who rated as lonely were least likely to have strong activity in their ventral striata when shown pictures of people enjoying themselves.

Although loneliness may be influence brain activity, the research also suggests that activity in the ventral striatum may prompt feelings of loneliness, Decety said. "The study raises the intriguing possibility that loneliness may result from reduced reward-related activity in the ventral striatum in response to social rewards."

In addition to differing responses in the ventral striatum, the subjects also recorded differing responses in parts of the brain that indicated loneliness played a role in how their brain operates.

Joining Decety and Cacioppo in writing the Journal of Cognitive Science paper were Catherine Norris, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Dartmouth College; George Monteleone, a graduate student at the University of Chicago; and Howard Nusbaum, Chair of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Decety and Cacioppo discussed the new field of brain mechanism in a paper in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, "What Are the Brain Mechanisms on Which Psychological Processes are Based?" The new field extends the work of Charles Darwin, who "regarded the brain as a product of evolution and the science of psychology as concerned with these foundations," they wrote.

By studying brain mechanisms, researchers hope to gain new insights by examining mental activities surrounding consciousness, perception and thought through an understanding of how columns of neurons stacked next to each other form elementary circuits to function as a unit, they wrote.

New visualization tools such as three-dimensional imaging will help scholars develop a new way of studying psychology, they said.

"Psychological science in the 21st century can, and should, become not only the science of overt behavior, and not only the science of the mind, but also the science of the brain," they concluded.

Source: University of Chicago

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4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2009
Not necessarily a surprising result, but it's good they're studying it. If you consider brain choice working off of a reward/punishment system (simple in children, complex when adult), then it goes to follow that those who are not as "outgoing" would received less reward for doing so. When you combine that with lack of social success, the risk looms larger in proportion to potential reward.

As you get older, you have learned to expect to not be successful as a defense against rejection. When you decide to try it again, you haven't learned the skills of being social and the reaction is reinforced - being social = punishment. Therefore, even in a crowded room you feel lonely, because you've already perceived rejection.

That's my take, anyway.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2009
To truly conduct such tests on would have to get a group of people who were not lonely to begin with and then to cut them off from human contact until they became lonely and then conduct the tests. The question is always, 'what came first, the chicken or the egg?' Perhaps many lonely people always had defective brains...leading them to be socially cut off in the first place.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2009
But will such research provide a cure? I am one who could benifit a lot from a cure being still single at 64.
4 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2009
To Ant; Start a support group for Lonely people and see who turns up. If that doesn%u2019t work volunteer for the philanthropic organization of your choice. In other words get out and be proactive. Unless you look like the elephant man or are just an a-hole you should be able to meet people. See you just met me by opening up.
not rated yet Feb 18, 2009
Perhaps many lonely people always had defective brains...leading them to be socially cut off in the first place.

There's a presumption in there that people who aren't highly social are "abnormal". "Socialness", for lack of a better term, should be defined as a continuum, not a binary choice of "social / not social". As MGraser pointed out, for some people, being with people in a social setting doesn't preclude loneliness. I would imagine that for some people, the reverse is also true - being alone doesn't mandate loneliness. Different ends of the same continuum.
not rated yet Feb 18, 2009
Ant, Crossrip makes some good suggestions - Statistically speaking the more people you interact with the better your chances are for meeting someone who is a relationship contender.

In a related point, also regarding Crossrip's reply, focusing on others tends to attract people to you, whether because doing so makes you happier which is attractive or because of other factors I don't know.

However, your posting suggests both that you are lonely and that you've been trying unsuccessfully to be in a long term relationship for all your life. If this is true, opening more door won't help if you can't or won't walk thru (to belabor the analogy). I would suggest talking to a licensed cognitive behavioral therapist. There's no shame and no harm in doing this, and they might be able to help you identify what you are doing (without realizing it) to sabotage you getting in / being in relationships.

Just a thought, hope you find the happiness you seek.
not rated yet Feb 18, 2009
You are never alone unless you think you are.

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