How The Brains Of Lonely People Work Very, VERY Differently

Photo: WeHeartIt

Is your brain in self-preservation mode?

When you're truly lonely, you can feel many things besides just being alone. You feel as if you have no common bond with people, disconnected, sad, like there's no one in your life who cares about you, and like you're constantly being left out. Being lonely is a key factor in all kinds of mental and emotional distress.

Loneliness can lead to a negative spiral where people feel so alone that they dread being social and start to believe it's impossible to enjoy being with others, even though that's exactly what they need.

In a recent study published in the journal Cortex, they found that lonely people's brains are different than those of non-lonely people. According to Psychology Today, when we feel socially isolated, our brains automatically change into self-preservation mode, making us more defensive and abrasive in the face of supposed social danger.

Guy Winch, a New York psychologist and the author of Emotional First Aid says, "Lonely people can become overly defensive and come across to others as detached, aloof, or even hostile — which only pushes them further away." Loneliness can create its own self-perpetuating negative behavior.

A recent article in New York Magazine talks about the study conducted by the University of Chicago's husband-and-wife research team of Stephanie and John Cacioppo, leading authorities on the psychology and neuroscience of loneliness.

They teamed up with their colleague, Stephen Balogh, to provide the first evidence that lonely people's brains, compared to the non-lonely, are finely tuned to pick up on the difference between social and non-social threats, and that for evolutionary reasons loneliness triggers a cascade of brain-related changes that puts them into a socially nervous, vigilant mode.

A loneliness questionnaire was given out to 38 extremely lonely people and 32 not-so-lonely people. For the study, loneliness was defined as the feeling of isolation as opposed to not having a lot of friends or close relatives. An electrode array of 128 sensors was put on each of the participants' heads to record their brain waves using electro-encephalography (EEG), a technique that measures brain activity changes over short time periods.

The researchers also conducted a Stroop Test, in which subjects were asked to focus on a word's color on a computer screen, not on its name. Participants were asked to quickly type the color of the word. The test was meant to figure out how the participants brains worked when it came to automatic and subconscious influences.

New York Magazine, Science of Us went on to explain that some of the words were social and positive like "belong" and "party," some were social and negative such as "alone" and "solitary," and others were non-social and emotionally negative and "negative" like "sad."

This helped the researchers determine how the subject's brains reacted to the sight of negative words that were social in nature when compared to those that were non-social.

From the reactions of the lonely people's brains compared to the non-lonely person's brains, the researchers concluded that lonely people's vigilance to social threat is an implicit, non-conscious bias — something they're not even aware of.

This is disturbing because these results suggest that when people are feeling their most lonely, their brains aren't tuned into smiles and laughter; they're focused on negativity. In today's world, that's a stressful and unhelpful state to be in.

As Guy Winch said in his TED talk, "By taking action when you're lonely, by changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem, by battling negative thinking, you won't just heal your psychological wounds — you will build emotional resilience, you will thrive."

Explore YourTango