This Is Your Brain on Loneliness

As we settle back into our routines after holiday celebrations, family visits, and New Year’s kisses, many of us may feel a bit let down or isolated. For some this is a passing melancholy, but for others it’s more serious. Everyone experiences loneliness sometimes, but most people don’t know that it can trigger evolutionarily determined response patterns that actually undermine our ability to connect with others, creating a vicious cycle of pain and isolation.

Animals (whether fish, caribou, or humans) that find themselves on the periphery of their social groups are the ones most at risk from predators. Being in that type of danger causes the animal to go into a self-preservation mode called hyper-vigilance, in which it is on high alert for possible threats. This includes social threats, which can feel as keen as any other kind.

Once in a state of hyper-vigilance, we experience rejection whenever we try to engage with someone else. Any possible sign of lack of interest jumps out at us, the way you notice every restaurant sign you drive past when you’re starving. In fact, things start to look like they might be restaurants that really aren’t. Every unreturned phone call or text becomes a sign that we don’t matter to that person. A single bad date seems to mean we’ll be alone forever. And we tend to dismiss any evidence or arguments that might disabuse our fears.

Although these distorted response patterns increase the pain of loneliness, they also serve a purpose. As University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo notes, the evolutionary positive of this suffering is that it impels us to take action to foster and repair the intimate relationships without which our sleep, health and longevity (not to mention our happiness) are all impaired. Without the —> Read More