How Loneliness Is Linked To Social Perception

Study links brain structures to loneliness

Study links social perception and specific brain structures to loneliness

Loneliness is the distressing feeling associated with the perceived absence of satisfying social relationships, in modern day societies levels of loneliness are on the increase.

As loneliness can affect anyone and is known to have a detrimental effect on health and happiness the increase is a worry for health professionals as well as the general public.

While it is know that loneliness can be effected by transient changes in social relationships, susceptibility to loneliness and heritability little is known about brain structures that are linked to loneliness.

A new study conducted by researchers at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience as well as other universities aimed to consider these brain structures linked to loneliness. (Kanai et al., 2012)

All participants completed the UCLA Loneliness Scale Questionnaire which asks participants to rate questions such as:

  1. I am unhappy doing so many things alone
  2. I have nobody to talk to
  3. I cannot tolerate being so alone
  4. I lack companionship
  5. I feel as if nobody really understands me

Participants responded on a scale ranging from “I often feel this way” to “I never feel this way”.

In the first experimental condition participants underwent a MRI scanner analysis to determine regions in which gray matter density showed a correlation with the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

4 more experimental conditions were tested that were aimed at examining social perception, social network size, anxiety and interpersonal reactivity.

Interestingly the researchers found that lonely individuals have difficulty in recognizing eye gaze direction:

Our findings indicate that lonely individuals have deficits at a relatively early stage of processing social cues. Lonely individuals are low in social skills and have poor sensitivity to nonverbal communication, whereas they are proficient in verbal communication

The researchers also noted that social network size, anxiety, and empathy also shape loneliness.

People with poor social skills are more likely to become lonely when they encounter negative stressful life events
The research has implications for how loneliness may be tackled; the simple act of organising social events is likely to be inadequate.

Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain Structure Links Loneliness to Social Perception Current Biology, 22 (20), 1975-1979 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.045