“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone”
From a very early age, human beings come to understand the essential need for attachment, but with that comes the understanding of loss. A sensation that we evolved in order to protect our children, yet we still continue to experience well into adulthood; also known as loneliness. The question that really perplexes people is how even when we have a beautiful marriage, friends, and a family —we still feel this evolutionary survival technique, called loneliness.
Neuroscience of Your Brain During Loneliness
Lead author and researcher at the prestigious University College London, Dr. Ryota Kanai, conducted a series of MRI scans on patients experiencing chronic loneliness. Dr. Kanai’s findings, which he published in the Journal of Current Biology, were quite surprising.
Typically, you would think that when humans feel lonely, a part of that experience stems from personal anxiety. Thus the researchers at University College London were expecting to see abnormalities in brain systems that deal with emotion and anxiety.
What the bio-psychologists at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found was slightly different from what we all expected.
When we experience loneliness, the part of the brain that is actually affected is the areas that deal with social perception, not anxiety. In the MRI scans, Dr. Ryota Kanai noticed that there was a significant decrease of gray matter in the lobes dealing with social skills.
What this means is that it is not our doubts or fears that play into our sensation of loneliness; instead it is our ability to perceive social interactions.
Why Do We Feel Lonely Even With Our Loves
So we know why and what areas of the brain are affected when we feel lonely, but where do our friends and loved ones come into play? This may surprise many of you, but even extroverts can feel lonely too. And it is because of our subjective perception of our relationships. Meaning, it doesn’t matter how many friends you have or how much they actually love you. Because as long as you perceive those relationships in a certain way, you will always feel lonely.
Think about it, how many times have you felt lonely even when your loved one sat right next to you? At one point in every relationship, the talks about subjects that fascinate you and ignite you, turn into transactional conversations (e.g., “Did you remember to buy trash bags?”or “Don’t forget about picking your mom up from the airport”)
The interest in what you like and enjoy doing, all of a sudden takes the back burner to what needs to be done around the house. This exchange and form of communication eventually start making you feel unimportant. As if no one really cares about you or is interested in what you have to say. This is the feeling of true loneliness.
Overcoming Our Lonely Perception
Overcoming loneliness can be one of the most difficult issues to deal with in your life. As many of you must have heard by now of the tragic death of Robin Williams. A perfect example of what it means to “have it all” — the fame, success, a wonderful marriage and even a child on the rise —yet still be burdened by your perceptions.
It is that moment when you feel so low and so alone, that you need to stop, and evaluate what you’re saying to yourself. Most of us aren’t used to paying attention to the way we think, even though our perception is constantly affected by our thoughts.
Once you’re aware of your thoughts, pay close attention to the shift in your emotions, no matter how small. When you notice yourself feeling lonely and unworthy of other people’s interests; ask yourself what your thoughts are saying. Then put your foot down when those thoughts are not productive to your situation. They may not always stick out or feel illogical, but if they’re making you feel lonely, then they surely are.
Last but not least, don’t be so hard on yourself. Stop being the “victim,”emotions are infectious and no one wants to be around a person who constantly feels less than.
You are stronger than you realize and more significant to other people’s lives than your brain can accurately perceive. So make the initiative to spend time with others and find what makes them genuine and interesting. For when we find interest in others; they can’t help but see the glow emanating from our very selves.
To Learn More About the Psychology of Loneliness (References)
- Kanai, R. (August 2012) Brain Structure Links Loneliness to Social Perception. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23041193
- Hansen, B. (June 13, 2014) 10 More Ideas to Help With Loneliness. http://psychcentral.com
- Queen, T. (June 2014) Loneliness in a day: Activity engagement, time alone, and experienced emotions. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24955998