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:
self-evident truths 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
look distinct, 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.
Said differently, 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 biological machineries
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, kitchen cabinet
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.
Scientific measurements 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 physiological consequences
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 predator revision,
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 was presented,
that is in a person's environment,
when something negative socially happened,
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 and empathy.
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
intentional, confirmatory 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.
Loneliness increases morning cortisol levels,
a powerful stress hormon,
the consecuence of the brain's preparation
for yet another dangerous day.
And loneliness increases prepotent responding,
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
inflammatory biology 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.
Second, understand 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.
Understanding that it's not the quantity of friends,
it's a quality of a few relationships that actually matter.
Attend to the three components of connectedness.
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 relational connectance
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.
Collective connectedness can be promoted by becoming
a part of something bigger than yourselves.
If the obstacles to connection seem insurmauntable,
consider volunteering 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.