Loneliness can be depressing, but it helps us survive

Posted on September 8, 2016

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that being lonely ruins health. In one recent study, the risk of dying over a two-decade period was 50 percent higher for lonely men and 49 percent higher for lonely women than it was for those who did not experience feelings of isolation. According to some research, loneliness may be worse for longevity than obesity or air pollution.

Yet according to scientists such as John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, loneliness has evolved to protect us. He likens it to hunger: "When you get hungry, it increases your attention to finding food. We think that loneliness is an aversive state that motivates you to attend to social connections."

And just like pangs of hunger, loneliness can feel like real pain - at least inside the brain. When people who had been put in a functional MRI scanning device played a computer game that allowed them to be rejected by other players, the areas of the brain that lit up when they were rejected were the same ones associated with physical pain. The experiment, by UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues, proved that the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that becomes more active when we are in physical pain, also switches on when we experience the pain of social rejection.

That pain of loneliness, Cacioppo argues, could have motivated our ancestors to seek connection with other members of the tribe - and thereby improve their chances of survival and of passing on their genes.

Loneliness may push us to reconnect with others in ways that are often automatic and subconscious. In a 2015 experiment, volunteers were filmed as they watched clips from such movies as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "American History X". Those who previously had been made to feel socially rejected as part of the experiment were more likely than others to mimic the faces of the actors. If Robin Williams seemed happy, they'd make a happy face; if Edward Norton seemed sad, they'd look sad, too.

When we feel lonely, we may also try to get physically closer to others, which can be both physically and emotionally protective. A 2016 study showed that experiencing social pain makes people push their chairs closer to the person who had previously shunned them. It may appear trivial, but measuring the distance between chairs of people engaged in a conversation has long been used by psychologists to gauge the closeness of relationships.

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Category(s):Depression, Life Purpose / Meaning / Inner-Guidance

Source material from The Washington Post


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