A study shows that
the brains of lonely individuals,
respond in odd ways to visual stimuli,
while those of non-lonely people
The brains of lonely individuals respond to video stimuli in unique ways dissimilar from their peers, while the brains of less lonely people respond similarly to others', suggesting that lonely individuals may process the world differently, which could exacerbate or even trigger their loneliness.
This finding (Lonely Individuals Process the World in Idiosyncratic Ways) was recently published in the journal Psychological Science.
Loneliness on the brain
Elisa Baek, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California-Dornsife, led the investigation when she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA.
She and her colleagues utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brains of college students as they watched a collection of 14 short videos during a 90-minute session.
The videos included,
...and 66 students participated.
After undergoing the lengthy scans, they subsequently completed an extensive questionnaire intended to gauge how lonely they feel.
As Psychology Today defines,
Baek and her co-authors then divided the students into "lonely" and "non-lonely" groups, determined by their scores from the survey.
Students who had a loneliness score below the median were categorized as lonely, while those who scored above were considered non-lonely.
The researchers then conducted a thorough statistical analysis in which each individual's brain imaging results were compared to every other individual's.
They found that the more lonely a person was, the more distinct their brain imaging results were compared to those of the other volunteers.
Each lonely person is lonely in their own way
The results held even when controlling for the number of friends each participant reported, reaffirming prior research showing that anyone can be lonely regardless of their social connections.
This could factor in to why people tend to silo themselves within friend groups and communities which share their views, a near universal trend that plays out in our online lives as well, often in a more extreme manner.
Baek and her co-authors also noted that lonely individuals had blunted brain responses in subcortical regions linked to the reward system.
In 2020, researchers from McGill University published a study on 40,000 people taking part in the UK's Biobank, finding that the brains of lonely individuals,
Their default networks were wired more strongly and had increased amounts of tissue called grey matter relative to less lonely individuals.
Cause or effect - or both?
A key question left unresolved in the present research is,
A long-term study in which participants come in to the lab for repeated scans over months or even years could provide an answer.
Of late, media reports have drawn attention to surveys showing that up to 60% of Americans say they feel lonely on a regular basis, wondering if a "loneliness epidemic" is afoot, potentially endangering our health.
As usual, social media has taken some blame here, with experts opining that regularly viewing others' highly curated adventures can leave us feeling increasingly left out and lonely...