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Loneliness Makes People Perceive Greater Distance From Friends, Loved Ones: Study

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Jun 23, 2020

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Image credit: Twenty20/Envato

Loneliness, or the unhappiness associated with social isolation, has been talked about a lot since the world locked down due to Covid19. Social distancing has unfortunately translated into social isolation for many individuals living alone and away from their families.

In situations like these, our communities attempt to help the lonely by urging them to reach out and seek companionship. However, this isn’t the ideal way to help, as loneliness interferes with how we usually perceive closeness to friends and loved ones, according to new research published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

In this small-scale study, researchers used fMRI scans to show that the lonelier an individual feels, the more likely their social connections are to blur into one distant monolith. The scans focused on the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which keeps track of social circles and closeness. Scientists observed that the isolated individual’s brain perceived itself and its social circle in vastly different ways. Plus, the ways in which it perceived close friends, acquaintances, and even celebrities subjects were aware of had very similar patterns.


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“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,” Meghan L. Meyer, senior author and director of Dartmouth Social Neuroscience Lab, said in a statement.

In situations like these, reaching out to close friends can become harder than usual. Thus, rather than leaving a channel of contact open to support lonely individuals, it is a lot more beneficial to get them access to mental healthcare support, in order to reframe their perspectives on social connections and help them seek companionship.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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