Loneliness makes your brain work differently, study shows

Social isolation can cause our brains to become more alert to threats

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The Independent Online

From the 95-year-old couple who called 999 because they wanted someone to talk to, to the John Lewis Christmas advert which is taking the nation by storm for its touching relationship between an old man and a little girl, the issue of loneliness has never been more prominent. 

In recent weeks we've also heard about the pensioner who rang a local BBC radio station to tell them he missed his wife, and have received sobering statistics from charity Age UK who say a million elderly people often go a whole month without speaking to anyone. 

And now researchers have shown being lonely can actually have a physical impact on your brain. 

The study, published in the journal Cortex, was led by married researchers Stephanie and John Cacioppo, from the University of Chicago, who are experts on the psychology and neuroscience of loneliness.

They found that lonely people’s brains differ from those of non-lonely people, Medical Daily reported.

In fact, lonely people are actually more alert to threats and the possible danger of strangers, because their brains become more active in social situations.

Psychology Today reported that when we feel socially isolated our nervous systems automatically switch into 'self-preservation mode', which makes us more abrasive and defensive - even if there's actually no threat.

The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved

Mother Theresa

The researchers found this out by distributing a 'loneliness questionnaire' to 38 'very lonely' people and 32 people who 'didn’t feel lonely'.

They defined feeling lonely as a subjective feeling of isolation, rather than number of friends or close relatives.

They used electrodes on subjects' heads to record brain waves, and also conducted a Stroop Test using words such as “belong”, “party,” “alone”, “solitary”, “joy” and “sad” - which were tagged as either 'social/positive', 'social/negative', 'nonsocial/positive' and 'nonsocial/negative' to see the different ways they responded. 

They found lonely people became highly vigilant when the words were regarded as 'socially negative', whereas non-lonely people responded in similar ways to both social and nonsocial negative words.

In conclusion, they surmised that lonely people’s brains are conditioned to tune into social threats faster than what is considered 'normal'.

And this hyper-vigilance to respond to social threats could be rooted in the subconscious.

"Our evolutionary model of the effects of perceived social isolation (loneliness) on the brain as well as a growing body of behavioral research suggests that loneliness promotes short-term self-preservation, including an increased implicit vigilance for social, in contrast to nonsocial, threats," they wrote in the study. 

They also found that even though the test was designed to be fast and reactive, to give subjects little time to think about their answers, lonely people picked out socially threatening words like “hostile” and negative nonsocial words like “vomit” more quickly too.

And they said that this suggests lonely people are subconsciously looking out for negativity.

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