Lonely People’s Brains Are Wired Differently — Here’s What That Means

Lonely People’s Brains Are Wired Differently — Here’s What That Means

Published |Updated

Hannah Murphy

lonely people’s brains are wired differently — here’s what that means

Lonely people’s brains are wired differently — here’s what that means Getty Images

The notion that a person can stand in a room full of people and still feel isolated has long been used to describe loneliness — now research suggests that this could be because the brains of lonely people are, in fact, wired differently.

Published in Physiological Science, the study used an advanced imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of people who reported feelings of loneliness and isolation to those who did not. Functional MRI scans monitor changes in neural activity in different parts of the brain when patients are presented with various stimuli during their scan.

The scans revealed that people who felt lonely displayed distinctive thought processing patterns.

When the participants’ imaging was compared alongside their self-reported level of loneliness, the researchers observed that those who reported feeling lonely or isolated displayed much different patterns — not just in comparison to a non-lonely group — but amongst the lonely group as well. Conversely, non-lonely individuals’ neural processing patterns were very similar to one another.

In other words, lonely people seemed to display a wide range of different processing patterns compared to people who weren’t lonely, even when they were in the same environment and were presented with the same information during their scan.

“Our findings raise the possibility that being surrounded by people who see the world differently from oneself, even if one is friends with them, may be a risk factor for loneliness,” the authors wrote.

Three years into a pandemic that physically and politically divided the world, many health experts have said that the isolation and polarizing climate of the last few years are going to lead to even more problems.

“The next health epidemic is predicted to be loneliness,” Shimi Kang, M.D., psychiatrist and author of The Dolphin Parent, previously told The Messenger. “All the science is pointing to loneliness and disconnection becoming a major health problem.”

And it isn’t just our mental health that loneliness affects — it’s our physical health, too. According to the National Institute on Aging, loneliness can increase the risk of developing conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

In May, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory to call attention to the “public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.”

In it, Dr. Murthy said that although COVID exacerbated the issue of loneliness and isolation, it is not a new problem. Dr. Murthy laid out a plan for the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, which has never been done in the U.S., highlighting the urgency of the matter, even amid an ongoing pandemic.

In the advisory, Dr. Murthy said that if we fail to adequately address the loneliness crisis “ we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being. And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country.”

For this particular study, researchers focused on imaging of areas of the brain that make up the default mode network, which some experts refer to as the “sense-making network.”

The default mode network is active when we are “on autopilot” and are not actively engaged in critical thinking. It is responsible for helping us to continue with our daily routines — things like going to work, cleaning and cooking — when we have essentially “checked out.”

Study participants underwent a 90 minute fMRI scan while they watched a series of videos. The clips were intended to keep the participants engaged so that activity in the default mode network could be monitored during a time when it should be less active.

The researchers explained that the varying brain activity observed in the default mode network could indicate that people who are lonely perceive the world differently on a neural level, even when being presented with the same information. They said that this perception might “contribute to the reduced sense of being understood that often accompanies loneliness.”

One question the experts involved in the study say they would like to explore further is what caused the differing imaging findings — whether it was loneliness that was responsible for the unique neural patterns or the different patterns that were the root of their loneliness.

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