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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Is reducing loneliness all about increasing wisdom? Scientists believe certain areas of the brain control the opposing connection between wisdom and loneliness. In a recent study, researchers at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine examined how the brain processes emotional stimuli in relation to loneliness and wisdom.

Previous studies have revealed that overall health can depend on loneliness. These feelings can increase the risk of a multitude of illnesses, which affect both mental and physical health. Additionally, study authors note the risk of mortality increases as loneliness goes up.

“We were interested in how loneliness and wisdom relate to emotional biases, meaning how we respond to different positive and negative emotions,” says Jyoti Mishra, Ph.D., senior author of the study, director of the NEATLabs, and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, in a university release.

For the study, 147 volunteers from the ages of 18 to 85 completed an easy cognitive test — stating the direction of an arrow while the background revealed different emotional faces.

“We found that when faces emoting anger were presented as distractors, they significantly slowed simple cognitive responses in lonelier individuals. This meant that lonelier individuals paid more attention to threatening stimuli, such as the angry faces,” Dr. Mishra reports. “For wisdom, on the other hand, we found a significant positive relationship for response speeds when faces with happy emotions were shown, specifically individuals who displayed wiser traits, such as empathy, had speedier responses in the presence of happy stimuli.”

The brain responds differently when you’re lonely

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), the team discovered a difference in the temporal-parietal junction in people reported being lonelier. This area processes cognitive theory as well as empathetic feelings towards others. In lonelier people, results show the TPJ was more active when angry faces appeared. However, in wiser people, it was more active when happy faces appeared.

The EEG also revealed increased activity in the left superior parietal cortex of the lonelier participants. This region functions to direct attention. Conversely, the region of the brain that controls empathetic feelings (the left insula) was more active in wiser people in the presence of happy emotions.

“This study shows that the inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom that we found in our previous clinical studies is at least partly embedded in neurobiology and is not merely a result of subjective biases,” explains study author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean at UC San Diego’s Center of Healthy Aging.

“These findings are relevant to the mental and physical health of individuals because they give us an objective neurobiological handle on how lonelier or wiser people process information,” Dr. Mishra adds. “Having biological markers that we can measure in the brain can help us develop effective treatments. Perhaps we can help answer the question, ‘Can you make a person wiser or less lonely?’ The answer could help mitigate the risk of loneliness.”

The team plans to test these results over a longer period of time, as well as to determine the effectiveness of certain medications on the outcome.

“Ultimately, we think these evidence-based cognitive brain markers are the key to developing better health care for the future that may address the loneliness epidemic,” Dr. Mishra concludes.

This findings appear in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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