Are You Lonesome Tonight?: The Science Of Loneliness
We have heard many people sing about loneliness. We have read poetry about it. There are numerous books on the subject, but do you really know how being lonely can affect you?
I am a social creature. I always have been. Being able to interact and connect with others socially is important to me mentally, emotionally, and physically. I get completely energized by even just talking to an old friend on the phone. There is nothing I love more than feeling a deep connection with someone whether it be from common interests or an emotional connection.
Without connections such as these, I get incredibly lonely. It’s not that I don’t know how to be alone. Sometimes I even like it, but for the most part, it is an unsettling and empty feeling. Unfortunately, I am alone a lot. Being visually impaired and not in a geographical area conducive to venturing out on my own, I feel a sense of loneliness much of the time.
I busy myself with school, writing, and whatever else I can to pass the time, but I still have this uneasiness around me. I figured the more I busied myself, the less I would feel this way, but I was wrong. Having social interaction and connection is critical for us all whether we think so or not. There are even scientific studies to back it up. It is referred to as social neuroscience.
According to nature.com, social neuroscience is a research discipline that examines how the brain mediates social processes and behavior. Although a newer discipline, there has been great work done on the subject, and they have found some incredible things about our brains and how they act and react to social connection.
I have always been fascinated with neuroscience, especially emotional intelligence, but it wasn’t until I recently watched a TED talk on social neuroscience that I realized the correlation between social connection and our brains. About how important social connection is to our well-being.
Being a people person, I know how important social interactions are to me, but I never realized how detrimental being lonely can be on the human body.
To understand how this actually works, I will have to let my inner geek out for a minute. The area of the brain which holds the reward system is the striatum. The part which holds the reward system for social connection is in the ventral striatum.
The ventral striatum, which is critical to learning, is a key portion of the brain and is activated through primary rewards such as food and secondary rewards such as money. Social rewards and feelings of love also may activate the region.
Research has shown that when someone is feeling socially isolated or lonely, it activates the striatum. This process is done by signaling opioid receptors. In our brains, we have naturally occurring opioids that are linked to social processes. When we are socially isolated or lonely, these receptors are not activated properly and lead to a dissatisfied state.
Social isolation and loneliness can be as detrimental as smoking and one in five Americans experience loneliness. Evidence from scientific and psychological based experiments are now showing that loneliness is linked to a host of effects on the mind and body – such as psychological and physical illnesses such as depression, cognitive decline, heart problems, and stroke.
Now with my need to geek out of the way, let’s get down to business. We as human beings are programmed to be social creatures. It is our innate need to connect with others that propels us toward one another. We see it through familial relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships. Our need to bond with others is critical to our well-being.
I have been known to go off on my rants about the importance of interpersonal communication and how technology is preventing us from communicating properly. I always get the roll of the eyes from one of my kids when I do, but it is real.
Think about this for a minute. Since technological advances, the rate of depression and anxiety has skyrocketed. Because of the lack of interpersonal communication, we are not able to socially connect on a deep enough level as we once were; therefore, the reward system in our brains through opioid receptors is not getting the activation needed to prevent loneliness.
This brings me to social media. Now as much as my kids would like to believe, I am not prehistoric when it comes to social media. I also know if I want to communicate with them it is more than likely done through Facebook, Snapchat, etc. As an author, I also know the importance of social media for my author platform. This doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that it is okay.
Social media has become such an integral part of everyone’s life. It started with Facebook. Aside from the ability to connect with others who are not close, do you know why we have all become addicted to Facebook? It turns out that Facebook was in fact designed that way. They figured out the perfect color, placement, and size of the like button to maximize the impact on your brain. It all comes back to the reward system I have been talking about.
So, let’s take a quick recap here. Your striatum holds the opioid receptors of our reward system. When we don’t have the proper rewards or connections our brain needs, it leads to loneliness. Because of this, we are more prone to psychological, mental, and physical illnesses. The lack of interpersonal communication leads to loneliness.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about what happens when your reward system doesn’t get the social connection it is looking for. It actually begins to look for nonhuman connections in the form of addictions. This explains why we overeat, smoke, drink and use drugs.
It is no secret that there is a huge rise in opioid and heroin addiction. It seems to be spiraling out of control. The fact that we are more socially isolated and lonely has a lot to do with it. According to Mind and Body, the idea that negative social encounters could produce a risk factor for all kinds of mental health issues, including addiction, is being re-appreciated right now.
So, to sum it up, being socially isolated and lonely can be detrimental to you on so many levels. It is critical in today’s society that we work to not only develop social connections but to work at ensuring they are thoughtful and meaningful. Spend more time putting down your devices and interact with those around you. You will be much happier if you do!