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Loneliness is Lethal -- Ayn Rand is Wrong

This I've got mine; screw you thing we have going on in the US today is bad for our health.  John Cacioppo tells the story at a recent TED event in Des Moines, Iowa.

Here is the short version, with direct quotes in italics:

The human species is social.  We are just wired that way.

In Survival of the Fittest, the Fittest is Social

The evolutionary biology stuff begins at the 3:40 mark in the video. Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not on our individual might.

Loneliness is a Warning Signal that Survival is Threatened by Isolation

The brain stuff begins at 5:36.  Cacioppo's field of study is loneliness. Loneliness is an aversive signal, like hunger, thirst, and pain.  Hunger communicates a threat, the risk of starvation that our bodies must address for survival.  Loneliness alerts to a threat to the social body, which we also must address to survive and prosper.

We are not in good shape in the US, sick and getting sicker.  At any given time, 40% of us feel lonely.  The consequences are not good for our health.  Living with loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 45%.  [This New Republic article describes a number of studies on this issue.]  For reference: the US ranks 51 out of 223 countries for longevity.  So much for We're Number One!

Somehow, We're Number Fifty-One! doesn't have the same ring to it.

Loneliness doesn't just make us unhappy; it is dangerous.  So the brain responds appropriately.  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.

The brain scans start at 11:30.  You know I'm a sucker for brain scans. Cacioppo's research team put people in scanners and showed them images of negative social situations.  The lonelier brains expended more energy in the visual cortical area; they paid closer attention to negative situations.

The Lonely Brain Has Less Empathy

Another part of the brain, the temporal parietal junction is in charge of empathy, the ability to see something from another person's perspective.  Perspective-taking is one of those activities that give us minds, make us self-aware, fully human.

The lonelier the brain, when confronted by images of negative social situations, the less energy goes to the temporal parietal junction.  It is dangerous on the social perimeter. When something happens negative in the social environment, that brain is focused on self-preservation, not on concern of the other person.

Maybe that is what Jesus and the prophets meant, They see and see and yet do not see.

Loneliness Leads to Hyper-Vigilance

Not all the effects of loneliness happen on the conscious level.  When people feel lonely, they may yearn to connect.  What they may not realize is that their brains go on hyper-vigilant mode.  The hyper-vigilant brain pays greater attention to whatever data would confirm its hyper-vigilance.  It becomes biased to remember and interpret situations as negative.  And if you are looking for dangers, you are likely to see dangers, whether they exist or not, meaning that you are more likely to have negative interactions.  So those connections break under the sense of threat.

Convinced that the enemy is surrounding you on every corner, the HPA axis goes out of control, generating too much cortisol, degrading health and leading to early mortality.  Sleep, that blessed healer, is interrupted and cannot detoxify the stress of the day.  Loneliness even whacks out the immune system.

If ever a vicious circle was vicious,
here we have it.

Loneliness as a Social Signal

The social ecology can interrupt this circle. Loneliness leads depression, which creates facial expressions that may cue others to try to reconnect with the lonely person, if they are willing.

But if nobody is chasing you down to counter your loneliness, what can you do?

First, recognize what is going on.  Don't deny or or displace the feeling.

Second, understand how loneliness is distorting your thoughts, how it is harming your body, how it is changing your behavior.

Here is a thought -- maybe that sense of anger, defensiveness, I've got mine; screw you is not about others trying to take something away from you.  Maybe what it really means is that you need, your brain and your body need to connect with others.

Third, take responsibility.  Respond to the signal.  Work on developing quality relationships.

Keys to Connection

We all need somebody to lean on, a person we can trust, in whom we can confide. We need a small group, people with whom we share good times.  We need to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

We have to do something to interrupt the distortions.  We have to take a risk, to join, to contribute, to break through our isolation.

It's the way we are wired.

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  1. "This I've got mine; screw you thing" - What's that got to do with Ayn Rand. She certainly would not agree and neither would anyone that understands Objectivism.
    Only people that don't understand it would say such a thing.


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