Saturday, October 24, 2015

Only the Lonely

This week, I read an interview with John Cacioppo (published in September 2012).  Cacioppo is the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

Cacioppo works in the field of social neuroscience: basically, he's interested in what happens within and to our brains when we interact with the world around us.  In particular, Cacioppo became interested in what happens to the human brain when it doesn't interact with others--even though it might really, really want to. 

In short, Cacioppo analyzes the phenomenon of human loneliness.

I find his research really interesting because, as an introvert, I'm often perplexed by the fact that I generally don't seem to feel lonely in the same way that other people do. 

In fact, friends have pointed this feature of my personality out to me on more than one occasion: after a breakup with a significant other, one of my good friends commented, "Well, if he thinks he's going to stop by and get an ego boost because you're alone now, he's definitely barking up the wrong tree.  I honestly think you prefer to be alone."

When I worried that perhaps I made people feel that they were being troublesome or unwelcome in my home, my friend quickly clarified.  Apparently, I do very much enjoy the company of my friends and I'm very welcoming and inviting and clearly miss them when they're gone, but... I don't "need" people in my life, I "want" them in my life.  And this distinction is very clear in my day-to-day lifestyle.

Cacioppo's research investigated the threshold of loneliness and identified that the difference between an introvert and an extrovert can be mathematically noted.  Extroverts seem to need approximately three friends to feel connected, while introverts need only one.

Cacioppo's research has also demonstrated that loneliness is just as bad for human health as smoking and even worse than obesity because it seems to stem from neurobiological factors.  According to Cacioppo,
Lonely people are often completely unaware that their brain has gone on alert. An isolated rat put in an open field will walk around the walls and avoid the middle, which is called predator evasion. We find lonely people are hypersensitive to social threats.
This may also explain why, once people find "Lonely Street," they have a hard time relocating.  Because they don't realize that they are, in Cacioppo's words, "hypervigilant for social threats," they go through life in "self-protection mode."

If a lonely person interacts with someone whose behavior is "ambiguous" (i.e., they're not feeling the social love), the lonely person will tend to respond to that behavior as if it is a potential threat.  In effect, they will engage in a form of "predator evasion" that will result in two things: a high level of cortisol (the stress hormone) and a continued state of loneliness.

So what's the cure for loneliness?  Perhaps not surprisingly, it isn't simply finding another--or "the right"-- person since, chances are, a lonely person's default social setting will be to respond to others as potential social threats, regardless.

As Cacioppo points out, "much of what happens in loneliness is not conscious. Lonely people don’t know it, but they lose the ability to control their impulses, which also happens in isolated nonhuman animals. It really is a brain state."

The cure, then, is to gain greater awareness of one's own state of mind when lonely--to pay attention to how and why one responds to or interacts with others in particular ways.  Because, as research has shown, the issue isn't really one of quantity, it's a question of quality.  Cacioppo notes,
what’s important is having friends on whom you can count. Popular people and billionaires have more than enough friends, but they can be very lonely because they can’t trust anyone. 
Similarly, social networking sites, while better than nothing, are not entirely helpful if you're not using them to "leverage face-to-face interactions" but instead looking to things like Facebook or Twitter as a "substitute" for face-to-face encounters.  (Introverts often acknowledge that they prefer social networking precisely because it avoids the pressure of face-to-face interaction, but my guess is that this works for them because their inherent threshold for experiencing loneliness is higher.)

In the end, the key to alleviating loneliness seems to be a greater self-awareness in the face of one's personal interactions with others.  Through this increased self-awareness, Cacioppo suggests, an individual can experience a greater sense of control over the periods of isolation in his/her life.

Along with that self-awareness comes a willingness to perceive social interactions in a spirit of "fair competition" (to remember that others who are critical of you are often the ones who challenge you to become better or more successful) and positive interaction. 

Good times make for good friends, and this investment can prove to be a powerful inoculation against loneliness.   

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."