The closer you feel to people emotionally, the more similarly you represent them in your brain. In contrast, people who feel social disconnection appear to be lonelier, according to a new study.
The findings of the Dartmouth study are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Over the past 100 days or a little over that, a large number of the world’s population has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the virus-led lockdown, leading to several people getting accustomed to staying home all the time, experience the impact of social isolation.
With the new normal becoming an important part of our lives, solitary confinement has possibly entered our homes and workplaces (or the makeshift ones at home) making loneliness a major threat to our overall health including obesity, hypertension and other lifestyle disorders.
“If we had a stamp of neural activity that reflected your self-representation and one that reflected that of people whom you are close to, for most of us, our stamps of neural activity would look pretty similar. Yet, for lonelier people, the neural activity was really differentiated from that of other people,” explained senior author Meghan L. Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, and director of the Dartmouth Social Neuroscience Lab.
The study was comprised of 50 college students and community members ranging from age 18 to 47. Before going to an fMRI scanner, participants were asked to name and rank five people whom they are closest to and five acquaintances.
The results showed how the brain seemed to cluster representations of people into three different cliques: oneself, one’s own social network, and well-known people, like celebrities.
The closer participants felt to someone, the more similar their brain represented them throughout the social brain, including in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the region associated with the concept of self.
Lonelier people showed less neural similarity between themselves and others in the MPFC, and the demarcations between the three cliques were blurrier in their neural activity. In other words, the lonelier people are, the less similar their brain looks when they think about themselves and others.
Meyer added, “It’s almost as if you have a specific constellation of neural activity that is activated when you think about yourself. And when you think about your friends, much of the same constellation is recruited. If you are lonely though, you activate a fairly, different constellation when you think about others than when you think about yourself. It’s as though your brain’s representation of yourself is more disconnected from other people, which is consistent with how lonely people say they feel.”
The findings illustrate how loneliness seems to be associated with distortions in the neural mapping of social connections with others.
Researchers have found evidence for a causal link between the prolonged experience of loneliness and smoking in a recent study. The study led by researchers from the University of Bristol was published in the journal Addiction. Although numerous studies have shown there is an association, it has been difficult to disentangle whether being lonely leads to substance abuse or if substance abuse leads to loneliness.
By applying a novel research method to the question - Mendelian randomisation - which uses genetic and surveys data from hundreds of thousands of people, the team found that loneliness appears to lead to an increased likelihood of smoking behaviour. There was evidence that being lonelier increases the likelihood of starting smoking, the number of cigarettes smoked per day and decreases the likelihood of successfully quitting.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action of Smoking & Health (ASH), commented that “If lonely people are more likely to start smoking and find it harder to quit, they are more likely to suffer the harm caused by smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable premature death, with thirty times as many people who die suffering serious smoking-related illnesses such as cancer, heart and respiratory disease. This research highlights the need for smokers suffering from loneliness to be given support to stop, to improve not just their health and wellbeing but also to help reduce their loneliness.”
-- with inputs from ANI
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