The Signals of Loneliness
by Andrew J. Gerber, MD, PhD
It is known that being lonely, or on the social perimeter, impacts the way a person behaves and interfaces with the world, and is detrimental to health. People who feel isolated from the world come to dread social interaction opportunities, and unfortunately, this leads to a tendency to spiral even further into loneliness. Now, researchers at the University of Chicago have demonstrated that lonely people process external information differently, and that there are observable neural correlates of the subjective report of loneliness. In particular, lonely people anticipate and are highly sensitive to the negative social interactions and cues that will likely serve to worsen their loneliness.
A study team headed by Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, and John Cacioppo PhD, used electro-encephalography (EEG) to monitor brain activity in 38 people who identified themselves as very lonely and 32 people who identified themselves as not being lonely. EEG was used to monitor a measure of brain activity called event related potentials, or ERPs, while participants viewed on a screen a series of emotionally and socially positive and negative words. For example, the words belong and party were used as examples of socially positive words, while the word sad was used as an example of a nonsocial and negative word. The words were written in different colors and the participants were asked to respond, on a keyboard, not to the words themselves or the meaning of the words, but to the color they were written in. This is a form of what is called a Stroop task.
Although their assignment was to evaluate the colors, and not the words themselves, the EEG readings of lonely participants showed they are highly responsive to any negative words and particularly responsive to negative social words. The millisecond timeframe and phases (called microstates) of the ERP response were so fast that the researchers defined this as an unconscious response.
This fascinating work comes from a top research team; John Cacioppo was a founder of the field of social neuroscience. These findings show that loneliness – a fundamentally important subjective state – has neural correlates which can be used to test hypotheses about this state and expand what we know about our emotions, relationships, and representations of the world. Since psychotherapy deals with these exact areas of functioning, it is good news for those of us who hope to use neuroscience methods to test and expand theories and practices of psychotherapy.
More reading on loneliness:
- Treatment Values
- “Loneliness and the Capacity to be Alone” blog post by Marilyn Charles, PhD, ABPP
- “Lonely People’s Brains Work Differently,” Science of Us, New York Magazine