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Can Loneliness Alter Your Brain’s Social Network?

Everyone feels lonely at some point or the other. But for some, loneliness may be a terrible feeling of failure or exclusion from society. Studies suggest that a feeling of loneliness or being alone can cause changes in the way your brain reacts and possibly also influence the way it functions. But did you know that loneliness can alter your brain’s social network?

Have you ever felt rejected, isolated, or lonely? Well, in today’s world when all are busy in their work or when some are left with no work, loneliness easily creeps into our lives. Not to forget, some stories on fantasy, sci-fi, and superheroes have also played a role in popularizing the preference of working alone.1

Can Loneliness Alter Your Brain’s Social Network?

While ups and downs on social media platforms could be a cause of loneliness for a set of young people, others have their worries and reasons to feel left out, isolated or lonely. Everything said and done – whatever may be the causes, loneliness is on the rise for sure.

But did you know that loneliness can alter your brain’s social network? Feeling lonely can reflect the way your brain represents relationships and perceives emotions. Let us understand this in detail with the help of results from scientific studies.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness can be anything that ranges from being physically alone, without a companion, or being emotionally separated even when you are a part of the group. Why does this happen? What makes you feel aloof even when you are in the company of your friends or relatives?

People often boast about the number of friends and followers on their social media accounts. But are they truly able to share their emotions with them? Are the followers and those who always ‘like’ and ‘share’ your posts your true companion? Or amidst the whole social network the ‘real you’ remains without any ‘real friend’ to share your feelings?

These days, our connections and social contacts are mainly electronic and for the younger generation most of it is through various platforms on ‘social media’.1 Studies have shown that as electronic social media grow, people seem to get lonelier. It is interesting to know that it is not just the social media platforms that keep a check on your social network, even your brain tracks your connections. Let us understand how loneliness can alter your brain and it’s a social network.

Loneliness is a distressing feeling associated with the perceived absence of satisfying social relationships.2 It is becoming more common in modern societies and also has adverse effects on your health.

The present-day situation, where almost all activities, working, learning, connecting and many other tasks have more to the ‘online’ option, people are more and more glued to the social media platforms. This makes it necessary for you to be physically alone but stay connected to your virtual friends, peers, or colleagues only over the screen.

This too is adding to concerns among many people. Moreover, issues revolving around the inability to mix with friends or spend time with friends physically or having to stay indoors for long (for various reasons) also makes the situation complicated. To add to this, people are more into communicating for the sake of it and are hardly able to express real emotions. Isn’t all this adding to the feeling of loneliness? When humans have been social animals a sound social relation can keep you healthy, while imbalances in relations, virtual connections can add to pretense and ultimately lead to loneliness.

Studies have shown that people who feel lonely may have certain specific aspects of their brain. Loneliness may alter the brain and its functions related to its social network.

How Does Loneliness Alter Your Brain’s Social Network?

While there is little information about the neural processes related to loneliness, there is a possibility that with loneliness, some changes may be observed in the brain too. Hence, there were studies conducted to understand whether the individual differences in loneliness can be reflected in the structure of the brain regions that are linked to social processes.2

Loneliness can arise due to deficiencies in the quality and quantity of social ties, absence of social connections, and ultimately lead to a sense of the decreased meaning of life. As social beings, humans seek social bonds and are in search of meaning and purpose of life through various relations during their life-time. However, loneliness and a reduced sense of meaning are closely related to declines in functional capacity, dementia-onset, and mortality in later life.3

Loneliness and Social Skills

Studies that were conducted to study how loneliness can alter your brain’s social network have reported astonishing results. In a test using voxel-based morphometry, the results showed that lonely people have less gray matter in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) – which is an area concerned with basic social perception.2 It was also noted that loneliness was associated with difficulty in processing social cues. Other sociopsychological factors like social network involvement and its response, fear, and other emotional factors could contribute to loneliness, the basic social perception skills could mediate the association between the gray matter volume in pSTS and loneliness.

Some of the important key points noted in the studies include the following:3

  • Loneliness is correlated to the volume of the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)
  • This area predicted the ability to recognize social signals.
  • Lonely people have difficulty in recognizing eye gaze direction
  • Social network size, anxiety, and empathy can shape loneliness.

As per the findings of the studies, lonely people are low in social skills, have poor sensitivity to non-verbal communications, whereas they may be very good at verbal communications. People having poor social skills are at greater risk of experiencing loneliness when they encounter negative stressful events in life.3

Another study revealed that the level of gene expression may be different depending on how many people you know and importantly, also related to the number of people you feel close to.1 Some experts have also linked the feeling of loneliness to immunity. More friends or close relations may help you have stronger immunity as compared to a lesser number of friends that can result in a lazier immune system. This can affect physical health and make one more prone to illnesses. This is in sync with the known that lonely people have precarious health.1

Loneliness and Brain Regions for Social Networking

Neuroimaging studies have provided crucial insights into the presence of loneliness and the way it can alter your brain’s social network. Based on these imaging studies, experts have found ways in which lonely people may show certain changes in their brain, particularly in areas that are related to social interactions and connections.

Studies have reported that the way the brain perceives different situations and reacts is possibly different in people who feel lonely. When the examination was done on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) lonely people showed less activation of the ventral striatum, which is associated with a feeling of being less rewarded by social stimuli. In contrast to this, people who did not feel lonely showed higher activation of this area, which suggests that social interactions resulted in pleasurable feelings. It was also observed that lonely people are more drawn to the distress of other people. These studies thus concluded that a lack of perceived pleasure from social interactions forms the basis of loneliness.1

In a task-based fMRI, lonely people showed increased bilateral activation in the visual cortex in response to unpleasant social images as compared to unpleasant non-social images. The regions involved in these responses were ventral striatum, amygdala, which are reward-processing and temporoparietal junction, which is perspective-taking.

These areas showed lower activation in lonely individuals showing that they derived less pleasure from rewarding social stimuli.3,4 It also suggested that differences in attention and cognition impact the emotions, decisions, behaviors and interpersonal interactions can contribute to the association of loneliness and cognitive decline and related morbidity.4

Some studies have also associated loneliness to changes in brain morphology within the default network (DN), which is a neural system involved in social and self-related processes.3

Recent Studies Linking Loneliness And The Brain’s Social Network

Some recent studies have presented interesting results, showing the way loneliness can alter your brain’s social network. It is noted that people who experience loneliness often perceive a gap between themselves and others. The gap can be reflected in the patterns in a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is related to your social network. This area maintains an organized map of your social relations, interactions, based on your closeness with related people.

In this study, the brain activity of the participants was examined using the fMRI. The participants were given to think about themselves, their close friends or relations, acquaintances, and celebrities. These were from different categories based on a person’s closeness with the category. When the participants thought about someone from each category, different activity patterns were noted in the fMRI. It was noted that closer to the relation, more was the resemblance of the pattern with self.

However, this was different in people who experienced loneliness, as their brain patterns were not the same as other participants. In lonely individuals, activity related to thinking about oneself was more different than thinking about anyone else from the other categories. Even when thinking about someone from the closest friends category, the brain patterns were different than that for the self. This concluded that lonely people have a lonelier neural representation of their relationships.5,6

The social brain appears to map our interpersonal ties and any alterations in this map may help explain the reason why lonely individuals often think or say that there are people present around them but not with them. Loneliness is common even in people having companions, partners, whether they are married or not. It may be linked to their perceptions, because of which they perceive even their near relations as distant ones. It is the reason why lonely people feel isolated from others, whether there are any close relations or not.

These studies explain and give an insight into various ways in which loneliness can alter your brain’s social network. As these studies help to determine the correlation, the results can help find ways to benefit people experiencing loneliness. Loneliness can alter your brain’s social network or affect your social abilities.

Improving social skills, being with people who have a positive influence on a person, better social skills may help people overcome loneliness. While counseling and other therapies apply for the management of stress and related problems, such modalities can also help in dealing with loneliness. Behavior therapy may be beneficial for people experiencing loneliness. There is a need to spread awareness, to create a sense of willingness to take action, and learn the right steps to improve one’s emotional wellbeing and prevent or manage loneliness.


Also Read:

Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:September 4, 2021

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