Have friends but still feel alone? Scientists link loneliness to atypical brain activity

LOS ANGELES — There is a huge difference between being alone and choosing to be alone, and it all has to do with your mindset. According to a new study, people who often feel lonely think and process the world differently, regardless of the size of their social circles. Using brain scans, researchers in California discovered brain responses that predisposed certain people to feelings of loneliness, even if they regularly interacted with others.

“We found that lonely individuals are exceptionally dissimilar to their peers in the way that they process the world around them … even when taking into account the number of friends that they have,” explains Elisa C. Baek, a researcher at the University of Southern California and lead study author, in a media release.

The team took 90-minute fMRI scans of 63 first-year university students. During the brain scans, participants watched 14 engaging video clips. Afterward, they reported how socially connected they felt to others using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. These results were used along with the results of a social networking survey the group took earlier in the academic year. The survey asked people to list the names of each of their study buddies, people they regularly ate meals with, and those they otherwise hung out within their first few months of being a college student.

People were divided into two groups. The “lonely” group consisted of people who scored high on the loneliness scale. The second group was the non-lonely group and socially involved people who scored low on the UCLA scale.

Sad black teen facing bullying, teasing, or racism by peers
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Scientists find 2 areas linked to lonely feelings

While looking at the brain scans, the study authors noticed differences in brain activity between the two groups. The differences focused mainly in two areas: the default-mode network (brain activity associated with interpreting narratives and friendships) and the reward-processing areas of the brain. The team suggests that lonely people process situations in a more unique manner than others, which could explain why some might not feel understood and left out.

“One possibility is that lonely individuals do not find value in the same aspects of situations or scenes as their peers,” Baek and the team writes. “This may result in a reinforcing feedback loop in which lonely individuals perceive themselves to be different from their peers, which may in turn lead to further challenges in achieving social connection.”

Another idea is that loneliness itself could change how a person thinks over time. Understanding more about how lonely people think would not only promote shared understanding but also identify new areas for reducing loneliness.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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