Loneliness is not something trivial to ignore; it is an important health issue at the heart of emotional distress syndromes. A growing body of research is illuminating the evolutionary roots of loneliness and how those feelings interact with our social environment. In a new study, researchers found that lonely people’s brains perceive social threats automatically and more quickly than the non-lonely.
Led by Stephanie Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, the researchers asked participants to view different types of pictures hat were presented one by one on a monitor screen, while their brain activity was recorded with a high-density electroencephalogram (EEG) system. The pictures either depicted a social threat (think: playground exclusion or bullying) or a non-social one (think: snakes); there were also non-threatening controls. They then analyzed the timing of the brain activity in response to the various threats.
As published in Cognitive Neuroscience, they found that lonely people as compared to the non-lonely respond to social threats more quickly than non-social ones. Cacioppo talked with CNS about the study and body of literature and their significance.
CNS: How did you become personally interested in this research? What personally drives you to study loneliness?
Cacioppo: I’ve been working on the neuroscience of social connections for the past 8 years. On the spectrum of social connections seat loneliness, on one hand, and love on the other hand. The better our understanding of the spectrum of social connections, the greater our respect for the significance and potency of its role in mental and physical health. In 1978, when the Task Panel report to the US President’s Commission on Mental Health emphasized the importance of improving health care and easing the pain of those suffering from emotional distress syndromes including loneliness (i.e., perceived social isolation), it was far from knowing that this issue would still need to be addressed 40 years later. Over the past 40 years, loneliness has become a growing problem, with prevalence rates rising from 11% to 17% in the 1970s (Peplau, Russell, & Heim, 1979) to more than 30% to 40% in 2012 (Perissinotto, Cenzer, & Covinsky, 2012; Victor & Yang, 2012) in the U.S.
CNS: What have we known about the link between loneliness and attention and how it relates evolutionarily to threats?
Cacioppo: John Cacioppo, my husband, has been studying this question for decades. Over the past decades, he and his colleagues developed an evolutionary model of loneliness. John’s evolutionary model of loneliness suggests that loneliness is associated with an implicit hyper-attention to negative social stimuli as they are perceived as potential social threats. According to this evolutionary model of loneliness, feeling socially isolated (or on the social perimeter) leads to increased surveillance of the social world and an unwitting focus on self-preservation. Paradoxically, feeling lonely not only increases the explicit desire to connect or re-connect with others, but it also produces an implicit hypervigilance for social threats. In other words, feeling socially isolated from significant others is not only sad, it feels dangerous. Our work tested the hypothesis that loneliness affects early attentional processes to negative social stimuli (e.g., social threats).
CNS: What was the major goal of this study?
Cacioppo: The major goal of our study was twofold. We aimed to test the hypothesis that implicit attention to negative social, in contrast to nonsocial, stimuli differs between individuals high versus low in loneliness and to investigate the brain dynamics of implicit processing for negative social (vs nonsocial) stimuli in lonely individuals, as well as in non lonely individuals.
CNS: What were your most excited to find?
Cacioppo: These findings are fascinating as they provide the first evidence of the high speed of hyper vigilance for social threat in lonely individuals.
CNS: Why is it important to understand the timing of social threat response in lonely brains?
Cacioppo: Little is known on the spatio-temporal dynamics of loneliness in the human brain. Thus, there is a real need to identify when and in what specific combinations the brain areas within the social brain and attention network are activated and modulated as a function of the participant’s feelings of loneliness. Decoding the speed of loneliness (and its different modulations) can tell us whether processing happens quickly (below conscious awareness) or slowly (at a more conscious level), whether it is sustained or lasting for a short amount of time, whether information is re-activated later, and even whether feelings of loneliness is the first input to attentional load.
CNS: What’s next for this line of work?
Cacioppo: Next line of work is to test how we can re-align the speed for social threat detection to that of non-social threat in lonely individuals. The ultimate goal is to teach lonely individuals how to see their social environment as it really is rather than as they think it is, i.e., dangerous and threatening.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz