Researchers Link Loneliness To Behavior And Brain Response
Loneliness has been found to alter the way our brain responds to the environment, as well as our behavior. It appears that, over time, social isolation leads to decreased activation of the ventral striatum, the area of the brain that signals rewards. The findings indicate that loneliness may lead people to seek comforts unrelated to social pleasantries.
According to John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago says, "Given their feelings of social isolation, lonely individuals may be left to find relative comfort in nonsocial rewards."
Food and money are primary rewards that activate the ventral striatum. Stimulation may also come from love and social rewards. According to the authors, one in five Americans has feelings of loneliness.
Jean Decety, Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago presented the findings along with John Cacioppo at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presented Feb. 15 2009.
John Cacioppo is one of the leading scholars on the subject of loneliness. He has found loneliness can be as detrimental to health as smoking. Cacioppo pioneered fMRI studies to explore empathy.
The study tested 23 female undergraduates using fMRI. During MRI, the women were shown pleasant photos of happy people and money as well as unpleasant pictures depicting human conflict.
The researchers found that those who rated themselves as lonely showed less activity in their ventral striata when shown pleasing pictures.
Decety says, "The study raises the intriguing possibility that loneliness may result from reduced reward-related activity in the ventral striatum in response to social rewards," leading to speculation that activity in the ventral striatum may even promote feelings of loneliness.
The varying responses of the individuals also told the researchers that loneliness affects the way the brain operates.
The use of fMRI to measure brain activity, combined with data about human social behavioral , is a new approach that can lead psychologists to a better understanding of the science of the brain.
The research showing that loneliness changes signals in the brain related to rewards, as well as behavior, is the first to use fMRI (functional MRI) to study social behavior.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience