Translator: Tatjana Jevdjic
Reviewer: Elisabeth Buffard
When you look out
onto the world,
it certainly appears the Earth is flat.
The ground beneath you
is stable and unmoving,
and stars and sun circle the Earth.
Hundreds of years ago,
elaborated theories were developed
based on these common sense observations
to explain and predict
the reach of the oceans
and the movement of celestial bodies.
When science demonstrated
that these common sense observations
and depicted the Earth and the Universe
in a completely different way,
people slowly came to accept
that the world was not as it seemed.
Scientific measurements and
have repeatedly demonstrated that
what we think is intuitive,
obvious and common sense
cannot be trusted to be true.
For that reason, modern sciences
based on the denial of common sense
until apparently it comes to ourselves:
when science confirms a particular way
of thinking about
our mind and behaviour,
or depicts it in
an unusual and a new way,
we tend to be skeptical
that such a science is worthwhile
even if possible.
And instead, we fall back on intuition,
prior beliefs, and yes, common sense.
For instance, if I told you,
scientific research has demonstrated
that opposites attract,
wouldn’t you tell me
that we don’t need a science
to tell us something we already know?
But what if I told you that
birds of a feather flock together
according to scientific research,
wouldn’t you say,
we don’t need a science
to tell us something we already know?
Or you may have realised already,
of course, that these both
may be self-evident truths,
but they can’t both be true
since they are internally inconsistent.
The science of mind and behaviour
is full of such examples:
that both can’t be true.
We know, for instance,
that two heads are better than one
and we know that
too many cooks spoil the broth.
The next time you hear
a science report
of some obvious result,
remember that the obvious result
was equally obvious,
but it’d just been proven to be wrong.
It’s obvious there
we’re rugged individualists.
True, true, true!
We’re born to the most
prolonged period of dependency,
but in a transition to adulthood,
we achieve autonomy,
independence, to become
kings of the mountain,
captains of our universe.
It’s easy to think about our brain,
how’s deep within a cranial vault
separated, isolated, protected from others,
when we look out into the social world
other individuals certainly
independent, self vicinities
with no forces binding them together.
No wonder that we forget
that we are members of a social species,
born dependent on our parents,
for our species to survive,
these infants must instantly
engage their parents
in protective behaviour
and the parents must care enough
about these offspring
to nurture and protect them.
Even when grown, we are not
particularly splendid specimens.
Other animals can run faster
see and smell better,
and fight much more
effectively than we can.
Our evolutionary advantage
is our brain and our ability to communicate,
plan and reason and work together.
Our survival depends
on our collective abilities,
not on our individual mind.
We are connected across
our lifespan to one another,
through a myriad of invisible forces,
that, like gravitity,
are ubiquitous and powerful.
After all, social species, by definition,
create a merging structures
that extend beyond an organism,
structures that range
from couples and families
to schools and nations and cultures.
These structures evolved hand in hand
with neural, hormonal and
genetic mechanisms to support them
because the consequent social behaviour
helps these organisms survive,
reproduce and leave a genetic legacy.
To grow into an adulthood
for a social species, including humans,
is not to become
autonomous and solitary,
it’s to become the one
on whom others can depend.
Whether we know it or not,
our brain and biology
have been shaped
to favour this outcome.
The evolutionary biologist,
David Sloan Wilson,
notes that if you ask people:
“What are the traits of a good person?”,
you’ll hear traits such as kind,
generous, compassionate and empathic.
If you ask people what are
the traits of an evil person,
you’ll hear traits such as
cruel, greedy, exploitative and selfish.
the traits of a good person
depict someone who cares
about themselves and others,
and an evil person
cares about themselves
at the expense of others.
Across our biological heritage,
our brain and biology
have been sculpted to incline us
to certain ways of feeling,
thinking and behaving.
we have a number of
that capitalise on aversive signals
to motivate us to act
in ways that are essential
for our survival.
Hunger, for instance,
is triggered by low blood sugar
and motivates you to eat,
an important early warning system
for an organism
that’d require much more
time and effort to find food
than going to the regrigerator door,
or fast food restaurants.
Thirst is an aversive signal,
that motivate s us to search
for drinkable water
prior to fall in victim to dehydration.
And pain is an aversive system that
notifies us of potential tissue damage
and motivates us to take care
of our physical body.
You might think that the biological
warning machinery stops there
but there’s more.
Although not common sense,
although not intuitive,
the pain and aversiveness of loneliness,
of feeling isolated
from those around you,
is also a part of biological
early warning machinery
to alert you to threats
and damage to your social body,
which you also need
to survive and prosper.
Just about all of us
have felt physical pain
and nearly all of us have felt
the heartbreak of home sickness,
the agony of bereavement,
the torment of unrequited love
and the pain of being shunt.
All of these are variations
on the experience of loneliness.
When I started to study
the effects of loneliness
and brain and biology
a couple of decades ago,
loneliness has been characterized
as a non-chronic disease
without redeeming features.
It was even equated
with shyness and depression
with being a loner, a person
with marginal social skills.
and sophisticated calculations,
to our surprise, revealed
that these were myths.
Science and common sense
had again produced
two very different depictions
of a phenomenon.
And yet if you look at the way
we are increasingly living our lives,
it shows the extent
to which we still buy in to
those myths of loneliness and
values of autonomy and independence.
For instance, if you look at
the percentage of one-person
housesolds in 1940 across the US
it was largely less than 15%
of the housesolds by state.
Fastforward to 1970,
and it’s grown to be
between 15 and 20%.
Fastforward to 2000
and it now exceeds 25%
in most states in America.
And that light blue state, Uhah
in 2010 census has gone darker blue.
The prevalence of loneliness
is also on the rise.
In the 1980s, scholars have
estimated that about 20% of Americans
felt lonelier than
at any given point of time.
Two recent nationally
representative surveys indicate
that this number has doubled,
but you don’t hear people
talking about feeling lonely,
and that’s because
loneliness is stigmatised.
The psychological equivalent to
being a loser in life or a weak person.
And this is truly unfortunate,
because it means we are
more likely to deny feeling lonely,
which makes no more sense
than denying we feel
hunger, thirst or pain.
For living with loneliness
we now know is the major risk factor
for broad-based morbidity and mortality.
Consider a couple of
the conditions we know about –
Living with air pollution increases
your odds of an early death by 5%,
Living with obesity, we know,
a national health problem,
increases your odds
of an early death by 20%.
Excessive alcohol consumption: 30%.
A recent med analysis of around
a hundred thousand participants
shows that living with loneliness increases your odds
of an early death by 45%.
We’re not the only social species
and the experimental investigation
of non-human social animals
who were isolated shows
they too suffer deleterious
and an abbreviated lifespan.
Across our history, as a species,
we have survived and prospered
by banding together,
couples, families and tribes,
for mutual protection and assistance.
We think of loneliness
as a sad condition,
but for social species,
being on the social perimeters,
not only sad, it is dangerous.
The brains of social species
including our own have evolved
to respond to being
on the social perimeter
by going into a self-preservation mode.
If you isolate a rodent
and then put it in an open field
such as these dots
at the bottom of the image,
it engages into what’s called
it walks around the outside
and doesn’t venture into the middle
where escape from a flying predator
would be more more difficult.
When humans feel isolated,
they’re too, and not only in
an unhappy circumstance,
but in a dangerous circumstance.
There brains too snap
into a self-preservation mode.
In a brain-imaging study
that we conducted,
we showed people negative images
that had nothing to do with other people
or negative social images,
while they were sitting in a scanner
and we were scanning.
What we found was
the lonelier the brain,
when a negative social image
that is in a person’s environment,
when something negative
the brain allocated more attention,
greater visual cortical activity
depicted in yellow here, to that image.
Now, as you follow that image forward,
you come to those two blue areas:
that’s a temporal parietal junction.
This is a piece of brain tissue
that’s involved in theory of mind,
in mind reading and mentalizing,
in taking another person’s perspective
It’s responsible for the attentional
control required to step out of your head
and put yourself, at least figuratively,
inside the head of someone else
so you can take their point of view.
The lonelier the brain,
when something negative
in the social context was depicted,
the less the activation in this region.
It’s dangerous on the social perimeter.
When something happens negative
in the social environment,
that brain is focused on self-preservation,
not a concern of the other person.
The similarity in neural and
behavioral effects across phylogeny
is a testimony to the importance
of the social environment
for social species.
And these deep evolutionary roots
tilting our brain and biology
towards our self-preservation
also suggest that
much of what’s triggered
by social isolation is non-conscious.
For instance, when you feel isolated
you feel this motive,
this desire, this intention
to connect with other people again.
What you don’t feel,
is that your brain has gone into
a hypervigilance for social threats
and this hypervigilance
means you introduce
and even memory biases
in terms of those social interactions.
And if you’re looking for dangers,
you more like to see dangers
whether they exist or not,
meaning that you more likely
to have negative interactions.
And that threat surveillance
of always looking for the next foe
activates neuro-biological mechanisms
that can degrade your health
and lead to early mortality.
Loneliness increases defensiveness
because you’re focused
on your own wellfare
rather than taking
the position or perspective
of people with whom you interact.
Loneliness increases depressive symptoms
which has the odd effect
of decreasing your likelihood
of having social conflict
and through the acoustic and postural
and facial expressions of sadness,
such as this child on
this picture serves as a signal
to others in the vicinity
to reconnect with you,
if they are willing to do so
so it’s a safe call for connection.
morning cortisol levels,
a powerful stress hormon,
the consecuence of
the brain’s preparation
for yet another dangerous day.
And loneliness increases
which means you are more likely
to fall victim to a whole host
of unhealthy impulsive behaviours.
And the end of the day
doesn’t bring an end to
the brain’s high alert state.
If it’s dangerous to fend off
wild beasts by yourself by a stick,
imagine how dangerous it is
to lay that stick down at night
when predators are out
and you’re without
that safe social surround.
We’ve found that loneliness
also decreases sleep salubrity,
increases the number
of micro awakenings,
increases the fragmentation of sleep
and thereby decreases
the detoxificaxion of stressful days
over the course of the night.
Loneliness even alters
gene expression such as
to deal with assaults.
Not long ago we thought about
the genes as the keyboard
on which life’s song played out.
What this research
suggests is that
if the genes are the keys on the piano,
then the environment including
your social environment
is the pianist influencing
which keys are turned on and off.
Well if loneliness is dangerous,
what can we do about it?
When we are hungry,
we can go to the refrigerator
and get a snack.
When we are thirsty,
we can go to the faucet
and draw a glass of water.
But when we are lonely,
we have no pantry full of friends
with whom we can connect
and no online social networking
does not replace
the comforting touch of a friend.
First, recognize what the signal is
and don’t deny it.
what it does to your brain,
to your body, to your behavior.
as a member of a social species,
to feel isolated.
And our brain snaps
into a self-preservation mode.
That brings with it some
unwanted and unknown effects
on our thoughts and
our actions toward others.
Be aware of those,
understand those effects
and take responsability
for your actions toward others.
And third, respond.
it’s not the quantity of friends,
it’s a quality of a few relationships
that actually matter.
Attend to the three components
One can promote inament connections
by developing one individual
who’s trusted, in whom can confide
and who can confide in you.
You can promote
by simply sharing good time
with friends and family.
We often go to the dinner table
happy that we’ve provided for our family,
but having forgotten to share
any good time with them en route.
can be promoted by becoming
a part of something bigger than yourselves.
If the obstacles to connection
for something that you enjoy.
Perhaps helping to serve the needy,
volunteering in a museum,
a zoo, a running club or a TedEx event.
Or simply taking time to speak
to elders at the retirement home.
Sharing good times is
one of the keys to connection.
And don’t wait, the next time
you feel alienated, isolated or excluded,
respond to that aversive signal
as you would hunger, thirst and pain
and get connected.