The Lonely Brain: How Loneliness Affects Our Brain and Health
We talk a lot about how loneliness affects our relationships, both with ourselves as well as with others (see our articles The lonely expat, It’s lonely at the top). It’s important to understand these connections and feelings better so that ultimately, we can move forward and heal from our past traumas. Our social relationships make up some of the most important aspects of ourselves so we should tend to them, try and understand where our traumas come from. That all makes sense but have you ever consciously considered your brain’s involvement? That 3 pound mass of neuronal tissue up there in your head is responsible for (almost) all of your perceptions, feelings, and actions. And we tend to take it for granted. But, guess what, it also needs tending. It’s very sensitive to changes, both from within your body and the environment, and it can deal with and heal with a surprising amount of trauma but again, these things are bound to leave scars. So, how does loneliness affect the brain? Are some brains more susceptible to experiencing loneliness?
How Does Loneliness Affects Our Brain
Before we start, let’s get one thing straight – there is no one brain area that can be held accountable for feeling lonely. But, there are a couple of key areas that are most likely involved in one way or another. Let’s find out.
The prefrontal cortex
A recent study (Lam et al., 2021) compared previous studies conducted on this topic and found some general patterns implicating specific brain regions. Based on this, the first brain region we should consider is the so-called prefrontal cortex (PFC). This relates to the foremost part of your brain, right behind your forehead. Compared to other mammals, this part is much larger in humans which might make sense once you understand what it’s about.
It’s involved in the formation of your personality but also things like decision-making and determining how to behave appropriately in different social situations. Most importantly, it also hosts what we call executive functions. These include your ability to determine right from wrong, holding yourself back from saying something in a situation where you would prefer to say A LOT, goal-directed behavior, determining the consequences of your behavior in the future, and handling conflicting thoughts.
So, the prefrontal cortex is pretty busy throughout your day. Considering the functions that the PFC is involved in, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the feeling of loneliness and social isolation has some effects on this particular part of your brain. More precisely, research has shown that especially a part of the PFC that is connected with self-criticism in social situations (hello, inner critic!), is heavily associated with loneliness (Lam et al., 2021).
(On a side note, it might be interesting to know that the PFC is the last part of your brain to develop and it’s not quite done until age 20-25, which explains some of the turbulence of puberty).
Another relevant part of the brain we should consider here is the insula. It’s a bit more hidden than the PFC, deeper down in your brain – well protected. It’s also one of those brain areas that is not very well understood yet but generally, we can say that it is divided into four parts:
Makes sense that this brain area is deeper down and well protected, I guess.
Zooming into the so-called socio-emotional region of the insula, we see that, once more, it is involved in multiple facets of our emotional state and how we react to certain situations. Generally, this part of the insula is activated whenever we feel something. Again, a pretty busy part of the brain. Have you ever felt upset about something and you really felt it, deep down in your belly? That feeling, that bodily sensation, is something the socio-emotional region of the insula picks up and lets us know that we feel upset. No wonder it’s involved in loneliness given how feeling lonely can be pretty gut wrenching.
The ventral striatum
We all like to be rewarded for our achievements, it’s what makes us strive to meet our goals. That’s your ventral striatum talking. Talking to you from deep down behind your ears, it’s telling you that chocolate is rewarding and that you should go out and get more of it. The messenger? Dopamine. Dopamine is very important when it comes to mustering up our motivation to do just about anything.
In terms of loneliness, research states that loneliness is in fact a state that motivates us to seek out human interaction, sort of like seeking out chocolate (Tomova et al., 2020). That makes sense. However, research also shows that this particular brain area is less active in people who have been lonely for longer, causing them to change the way they approach a social situation (Cacioppo et al., 2014). This could mean that when a person you don’t know (yet) smiles at you, and you’ve been feeling lonely for a longer period of time, you may be thinking “She’s already making fun of me”. So, of course you won’t go out of your way to invite her for a coffee - why would you? All this may explain the start (and maintenance) of a vicious cycle. Social interaction - making friends - needs to be learnt and a lot of adults grow out of touch with how easy it was when they were a kid. And - if it’s not practiced for a while - it becomes even harder to start again. Much like some of us felt a bit weird going back out into the world after 2 years of a global pandemic (or was that just me?)
Understanding our Lonely Brain
Now that we know a bit more about how loneliness affects the brain, you might wonder – what good does it do me knowing this?
Remember this: Social connection is a fundamental human need. Without attachment, we simply would not survive. That's why, feeling lonely is your brain's way of telling you to get out there. It's not a defect or a disorder. On the contrary - it's a sign of a perfectly normal and healthy brain. And sometimes, yes, there are bumps on the road. Feeling lonely for a longer period of time, can cause the brain to adjust to these circumstances to the extent that it might make it more difficult for you to approach someone.
This is where understanding our brains comes in - with this knowledge, you can work on overriding thoughts such as "they don't like me anyway so what’s the point?". Knowledge is power. In this case, it’s the power to better understand your own feelings.
Then, we can train our brains. Think of it like training for a marathon. Would you attempt to run 42km on the first day of training? I doubt it. Re-learning part of that childhood ease to approach people comes in much of the same ways. The beginning is the hardest, trust me. Start small and allow yourself to be surprised by others - and yourself.
Written by Johanna Perschl, Intern Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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