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Loneliness Reflected in Neural Mapping of Relationships

Even before the COVID pandemic, many experts posited that loneliness was itself an American epidemic. Now, many fear the reduction in social contact may especially affect those populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness.

Now, emerging research explores the manner in which the brain maps relationships with other people in relation to one’s self.

Experts agree that social connection with others is critical to a person’s mental and physical well-being. The new Dartmouth study finds that 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 have a lonelier, neural self-representation.

The findings appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“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 Dr. 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 in an fMRI scanner, participants were asked to name and rank five people whom they are closest to and five acquaintances.

During the scan, participants were asked to make trait judgements about themselves, the people they are closest to and the acquaintances that they had just named, and five celebrities. Participants were asked to rate how much a trait described a person (such as if the person is friendly) on a scale from 1 to 4 (from not at all to very much).

The results showed how the brain seemed to cluster representations of people into three different cliques: 1) oneself, 2) one’s own social network, and 3) well-known people, like celebrities.

The closer participants felt to someone, the more similarly 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 was 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.”

Researchers believe the findings show how loneliness seems to be associated with distortions in the neural mapping of social connections with others.

Source: Dartmouth College

Loneliness Reflected in Neural Mapping of Relationships

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Loneliness Reflected in Neural Mapping of Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/17/brain-activity-depicts-loneliness/157435.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jun 2020 (Originally: 17 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jun 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.