Science

Loneliness Rewires How the Human Brain Perceives Relationships

MRI scans of lonely people reveal how their brain might value their best friends, acquaintances and celebrities all the same.
23 June 2020, 6:35am
lonely man
Photo courtesy of Inzmam Khan / Pexels

Loneliness can be a terrible, terrible feeling. It alienates you from your surroundings, makes you feel misunderstood and unwanted by the people around you, and severely affects your understanding of other people. Now, a study recently published in science journal J. Neurosci says that loneliness also affects how your brain perceives people and relationships in your life.

The study focused on the brain's medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC)—the part associated with self-representation i.e. the image a person has of themselves. It sought to understand how people mapped the representation of other people in their brains, based on how well they could connect to others’ identities.

“Social connection is critical to well-being, yet how the brain reflects our attachment to other people remains largely unknown,” say authors Andrea L Courtney and Meghan L Meyer in the study. “The social brain appears to map our interpersonal ties, and alterations in this map may help explain why lonely individuals endorse statements such as ‘people are around me but not with me’.” Their study also sought to explore how loneliness affects our brain’s perception of relationships.

The 43 participants in the tests were asked to concentrate on 16 different people: themselves, close friends or family, acquaintances, and celebrities. They were then asked to report on their feelings of loneliness and how close they felt to each person while their brains were being monitored by researchers.

The results of the study showed that the brain maintained a network of social circles, based on closeness. The way the brain functions is that when you think about yourself, one part of it lights up, and when you think about others, a different part of the brain lights up. In people who aren’t lonely, there’s a lot of overlap between these two parts if they’re thinking of a close friend. For acquaintances, there’s less overlap, but it’s still there.

However, for people who described themselves as lonelier, the part of their brain lighting up thinking about themselves and others is completely separate. They club all other people together, no matter what the level of closeness might be, separate from themselves. Which means the patterns for close contacts become more like those for acquaintances and celebrities, all blurring into one.

"You would expect there to be this differentiation between close others and acquaintances, but actually you're seeing less of that for people who are lonely," said Courtney to CNN. “Loneliness can result from several situations, including acting as a defense mechanism to mitigate social threat and avoid the risk of rejection.”

This study, although performed on a very small sample, gives rise to several other questions: Does loneliness lead to how the brain perceives relationships? Where does the disparity between participants who described themselves as lonely and the ones who didn’t come from?

It also comes aptly at a time when we all have been feeling a little lonely ourselves, thanks to enforced social distancing and isolation norms. As we stay inside our houses with minimal interaction, our bonds with other people have started to wither a bit too. It explains why we might feel more connected to 7 Korean men on our laptop screens than our best friends on some days.

But what can be done to reduce this feeling? “Reach out to friends to rediscover and foster closeness,” added Courtney. “Consider whether you're under-perceiving the amount of social support you do have.”

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