Loneliness Kills: What Do We Do About It?

Picture: Bert Kaufmann (CC)

Picture: Bert Kaufmann (CC)

If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, then you may enjoy this New Republic article on the phenomenon of loneliness and its impact on physical health. It’s full of all sorts of interesting asides about who experiences loneliness and why.

The New Republic:

A famous experiment helps explain why rejection makes us flinch. It was conducted more than a decade ago by Naomi Eisenberger, a social psychologist at UCLA, along with her colleagues. People were brought one-by-one into the lab to play a multiplayer online game called “Cyberball” that involved tossing a ball back and forth with two other “people,” who weren’t actually people at all, but a computer program. “They” played nicely with the real person for a while, then proceeded to ignore her, throwing the ball only to each other. Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.

I asked Eisenberger why, if the same part of our brain processes social insult and bodily injury, we don’t confuse the two. She explained that physical harm simultaneously lights up another neural region as well, one whose job is to locate the ache—on an arm or leg, inside the body, and so on. What the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex registers is the emotional fact that pain is distressing, be it social or physical. She calls this the “affective component” of pain. In operations performed to relieve chronic pain, doctors have lesioned, or disabled, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. After the surgery, the patients report that they can still sense where the trouble comes from, but, they add, it just doesn’t bother them anymore.

It’s tempting to say that the lonely were born that way—it’d let the rest of us off the hook. And, as it turns out, we’d be about half right, because loneliness is about half heritable. A longitudinal study of more than 8,000 identical Dutch twins found that, if one twin reported feeling lonely and unloved, the other twin would report the same thing 48 percent of the time. This figure held so steady across the pairs of twins—young or old, male or female, notwithstanding different upbringings—that researchers concluded that it had to reflect genetic, not environmental, influence. To understand what it means for a personality trait to have 48 percent heritability, consider that the influence of genes on a purely physical trait is 100 percent. Children get the color of their eyes from their parents, and that is that. But although genes may predispose children toward loneliness, they do not account for everything that makes them grow up lonely. Fifty-two percent of that comes from the world.

Evolutionary theory, which has a story for everything, has a story to illustrate how the human species might benefit from wide variations in temperament. A group that included different personality types would be more likely to survive a radical change in social conditions than a group in which everyone was exactly alike. Imagine that, after years in which a group had lived in peace, an army of strangers suddenly appeared on the horizon. The tribe in which some men stayed behind while the rest headed off on a month-long hunting expedition (the stay-at-homes may have been less adventurous, or they may just have been loners) had a better chance of repelling the invaders, or at least of saving the children, than the tribe whose men had all enthusiastically wandered off, confident that everything would be fine back home.

Keep reading.

20 Comments on "Loneliness Kills: What Do We Do About It?"

  1. Simon Valentine | May 13, 2013 at 7:22 pm |

    free cookies at the end of the page.

    so, there’s a standard international unit of brain matter now? same “part” right? like parting the red sea? parting hair? parting out a totaled vehicle?

    proto axiomatic aphoric maxim is illusory allusion.
    there is no brain part.

    try “if i say a tricky way of saying that if they’re the same then they’re the same and then deny that what i say retroactively becomes that then i must be a psychologist” but hey, another ‘science’ assuming it has solutions to n-body and NP? SI Table indeed. orthentic fraud. excuse me. i mean to say that which is transpondently the same as saying “Renaissance art eclective”.

  2. So society kills those it rejects.

  3. Anarchy Pony | May 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm |

    Who’s lonely when you’ve got the disinfonauts?

  4. BuzzCoastin | May 13, 2013 at 8:46 pm |

    Loneliness Kills: What Do We Do About It?

    I suggest wee do nothing
    feeling lonely? look around, there are people everywhere
    there are cults, religions & political groups waiting for you
    Arab? the FBI has plenty of clubs for you
    Black? there’s that home away from home, Prison USA INC LLC GMbH
    poor white or Hispanic?
    Uncle Homeland’s Marching Murdering Band is for you
    lower middle class white? just watch TV

    I think the bigger problem is being surrounded by dumb-shits

    • What’s your solution to that problem?

      • BuzzCoastin | May 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm |

        my personal solution is avoiding people as much as possible
        I have never had a problem attracting people
        I have a problem getting rid of the morons & leeches

        but seriously, loneliness is a state of mind
        it is impossible to escape the presence of people
        I know because I’ve tried
        loneliness is a psychological state not a physical reality
        it’s up to the lonely to develop better interpersonal skills
        & not up to me to figure out how to help them

        • mannyfurious | May 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm |

          Very true. I was very “lonely” for most of my time in college simply because I kept telling myself, “I’m in college. I should be living it up with the bros and banging blonde women from middle class upbringings.” Which wasn’t the case at all. Once I decided, “Eh, fuck those people,” I started feeling better almost immediately and actually met a really nice woman who later became my wife.

          It’s interesting, though, to think back to that time now and see how thoroughly my mind had been infiltrated with such poisonous thoughts and how thoroughly depressed I got from such a silly outlook.

    • I know…its one thing to lack human contact and interaction…its another altogether to lack stimulating human contact with people that don’t make you feel like fleeing back into the wilderness. Thank goodness my local chums are a tiny cadre of oddball smarties that are actually fun to talk to…and educational, mostly because we all specialize in very different fields of inquiry. One cats a military history expert, another a theologian, a couple philosophers and anthropologists, me (history maniac and utterly fascinated by mythology/spirituality of all types and kinds), and some linguists and medical professionals. Makes for a nice mix, and good people to call on with questions. These folks make my life a pleasure in a specific way…while a stroll thru major grocery chains usually makes me hurry to get away from people in a more general sense.

      • BuzzCoastin | May 14, 2013 at 6:45 pm |

        I’m glad you found away to put that group together

        because I travel & move so often
        I never seem to be able to do that
        though I once had such an experience
        when I lived in Bangkok
        and I knew a lot of kewl people when I lived in Hawaii too

      • kowalityjesus | May 15, 2013 at 3:34 am |

        fleeing back into the wilderness…holy shit lol that produced a mental image of queuing and being confronted by mundane incompetence then running naked into the forest. lolololol

        • lol…actually…the last time I was browbeaten into walking thru a Walmart while a friend got something…it came dangerously close to that (and there were some handy woods nearby. With my luck, blurry photographs of my streaking thru the parking lot and into the woods would have wound up as bigfoot evidence on the interwebz.

      • Matt Staggs | May 15, 2013 at 10:36 am |

        Between the pseudo-relationships I’ve built on the internet and my local cadre of fellow travelers I get by okay. Sometimes I think the feeling that you have a running crew of like-minded weirdos is as important as actually having one.

        • Calypso_1 | May 15, 2013 at 11:00 am |

          Indeed. I even like many non like-minded weirdos.
          Though the term ‘Strangoid holds more personal appeal.

  5. Christel Platt | May 13, 2013 at 10:31 pm |

    Not sure if this has any real significance to this article, but I wanted to share when I saw loneliness for the first time. My grandmother passed 5 days ago, and before she passed she lived 6 years alone, after my grandfather passed. Everything she was died when he did, and she was so lonely and sad that she wouldnt even come out of the house. She always said she just wanted to die. Despite having a beautiful home, no money problems, 3 daughters, 9 grandchildren & 7 great-grandchildren her will to live was gone. I realized that being lonely can still occur when people are all around you. She lived for that man, and he her. That kind of love these days is rare,a 60 yr marriage, she died of a broken heart I will always believe,

  6. I’m really isolated where I’m at. Enough to develop cabin fever at times. I see friends about 2 times a year. Don’t see people for days, sometime weeks. Naturally I’m an introvert and a loner and I actually enjoy the peace. The internet gives you a little sociability. I am way more calm and productive without anyone around. But that’s my personality. Other people are different. When you get used to it, it’s not so bad. I like being social sometimes but it just takes so much energy if your an introvert. I can’t pretend I wouldn’t like being the center of attention but I’m not sad or in pain anymore either, I’m actually a lot happier not worrying about what other people think, not trying to impress or watch what I do. It’s refreshing. When I go to town I get anxiety though, everything starts to become novelty again after a while. I also find it hard to talk to people even more than usual, but not too bad.

  7. Liam_McGonagle | May 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm |

    Well, for starters: people aren’t really what you think they are. Sh*t, they’re not even what THEY think they are.

    And if the decisive ingredient in social relationships is imagination anyhow, why not just pretend that you have friends and save yourself the trouble of real ones? You’re only liable to disappoint yourself if you ask too many questions.

  8. Hadrian999 | May 14, 2013 at 3:22 pm |

    I must be strange, I need a certain amount of time away from people or I start to get agitated. I can’t stand being around people all the time.

    • I don’t think there’s a contradiction there. Everybody needs some time to themselves and some time with other people.

  9. Focusonthis | Sep 25, 2013 at 1:41 pm |

    What is not being told , is that unethical research practices where used to obtain Dr. Naomi Eisenberger’s scientific data. Also, Dr. Naomi Eisenberger’s work has been sited in a public debate that shows that her research has higher correlations than should be expected given the (evidently limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality measures. The high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain much detail about how the correlations were obtained.Read more about this on ‘Voodoo correlations.’ I mean, “What is really going on here?’

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