Loneliness is gaining recognition as a public health threat. It may be as bad for you as smoking, obesity, and diabetes. The lonely have higher health risks from high blood pressure to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness is also associated with mental illnesses like depression. Chronic isolation can harm our bodies and even flip our genetic switches. It turns on harmful inflammation genes while shutting down genes involved in antibody production.
The Lonely Brain
Scientists have long known that the brain finds social interactions to be rewarding. Positive socialisation experiences trigger rewards circuits in the brain. These include the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The VTA makes us feel good when we do things that increase our chances of survival. Humans are hardwired for social connection and cooperation. In our threat-filled ancestral world, loneliness was an alarm bell signalling danger.
How does the brain react to loneliness? Our understanding of the lonely brain is still evolving. But today we know that loneliness can change the way we think.
Neuroscientists have found different patterns of brain activation in lonely versus non-lonely people. Lonely people’s brains are more sensitive to perceived social threats. Certain regions of lonely brains react faster to social threats than non-lonely brains. This over-sensitivity to social threats could lead to social withdrawal among the lonely. This negative outlook could lock the lonely into a self-perpetuating loneliness cycle.
In one neuroscience experiment, lonely and non-lonely people viewed positive and negative social images. Researchers viewed participant’s brain activity through fMRI. Lonely people paid more visual attention to negative social images than non-lonely controls. Their visual cortex showed more activation than control subjects. But the lonely showed lower-than-normal activation in the temporoparietal junction. Neuroscientists think this area plays a role in our ability to empathise with others.
Loneliness impacts other areas of life beyond socialisation. Lonely people tend to be more negative in general. They struggle with decision making and emotional control. They have worse sleep quality, with unremembered ‘microawakenings’ throughout the night. These brief sleep interruptions are likely a sign that the brain is on high alert for threats.
MIT neuroscientists recently found that a cluster of neurons that influence socialisation. This group of dopamine-releasing cells is called the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). DRN neurons activity spikes when isolated mice are re-introduced to other mice. Manual activation of the DRN by researchers causes mice seek socialisation after isolation. On the flip side, researchers tried suppressing the DRN. In this case, when the mouse is re-introduced to others, it shows little desire to socialise.
The DRN region appears to play an important role in connection-seeking behavior. Neuroscientists wonder whether studying the region could help us explain people’s socialisation preferences. For example, are introversion/extraversion traits innate or influenced by experiences?
These studies are our first steps towards understanding loneliness and the brain. Ultimately, this research could have important therapeutic implications. It could help people struggling with social interactions, perhaps helping social anxiety to autism.
Coaching Lonely Clients
Clients often seek help in overcoming perceived isolation and improving their social skills. Neuroscientists find that loneliness can hamper client’s work and life performance. Can coaches use neuroscientist’s insights into the lonely brain to help clients overcome loneliness?
First, it is important to distinguish the experience of loneliness from being alone. Spending time away from others doesn’t always result in harmful loneliness. Conversely, having many social conducts may not protect clients from feeling loneliness. The quality of a client’s relationships and their individual needs for connection are important.
Coaches do not express alarm at the common experience of temporary loneliness. This is often associated with big life changes such as starting college or losing a spouse. Clients in these situations will need support, but should not stress over loneliness.
At its core, loneliness is a mismatch between desired relationships and actual relationships. Use this simple questionnaire to explore whether your client is experiencing troublesome loneliness:
1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship — hardly ever, some of the time, or often?
2. How often do you feel left out — hardly ever, some of the time, or often?
3. How often do you feel isolated from others — hardly ever, some of the time, or often?
If you are working with a client who identifies as lonely, express optimism. Countless studies bear out the resiliency of the human spirit. In time, we can overcome even deep seeded traumas to recover normal social functions.
When it comes to loneliness and the brain, knowledge is power.
Loneliness researchers think that an understanding of the lonely brain can help clients heal. As a coach, you can help your clients rediscover their natural strengths. Using a brain-focused approach, you can build their capacity to overcome social isolation.