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The Brain’s Hunger for Connection

March 22, 2023

Brain scanLoneliness is a feeling that we all encounter at some point in our lives, and it can leave us feeling isolated and disconnected from the world around us. But did you know that chronic loneliness can take a serious toll on our health and wellbeing? Our brains are wired to seek out social connections, and when we lack them, it can affect how we think and feel. By learning more about the science behind loneliness and its effects on our brains, we can take the first step in combating the loneliness epidemic and building deeper, more meaningful connections with ourselves and those around us.

How Our Brains Process Loneliness

Our brains see loneliness in a similar way to hunger. Brain scans show that the same regions of the brain are activated when someone who hasn’t eaten in hours sees pictures of delicious food and when someone who has been alone for hours sees pictures of happy groups of friends.

This activity is found in a part of the brain called the default network, which springs into action during passive activities and when we speak, reason, and think about the future. Interestingly, this network is also activated when we think about other people and what their actions mean. This heightened brain activity in the default network can lead to a rich imaginary social life where we may even attribute human-like qualities to our pets. This tendency, while not necessarily problematic, can make real-life social interactions seem less satisfying in comparison.

In a 2021 study researchers found that chronic loneliness can have a significant impact on the structure of our brains. People who lacked social connections had a smaller orbitofrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that processes rewards, like the benefits of social interactions. As a result, chronically lonely individuals may struggle to interpret other people’s actions and understand their intentions. 

Loneliness affects not only the structure of our brain but our perception and interactions with others. It is associated with reduced trust in others less, discomfort with physical touch, and a preference to stand farther away from strangers. A 2021 study found that when lonely people played a trust-based game, a region of their brains called the insula, which is linked to examining our “gut feelings,” is not very active. This suggests that trust is a major factor in how we interact with others when we’re lonely, and interventions targeting trust could be part of the solution to loneliness. 

The Power of Creative Expression

Loneliness can have a serious impact on our mental wellbeing, but the good news is that creative expression can be a powerful tool in stimulating our brains and enhancing our wellbeing. Engaging in the arts can have a positive impact on our mental health, as it influences the reward circuitry in the brain, called the medial forebrain bundle, which can be linked to the default network. For instance, listening to music engages our brain’s endorphin system which relieves pain and stress, and the endorphins released in the brain during musical interactions are linked to social bonding behaviors

By understanding the science behind loneliness and actively making efforts to connect with others through creative expression, we can create a happier and healthier future. Check out our Project UnLonely webpage to learn more about raising awareness of the loneliness epidemic and empowering people and communities to connect with each other through the arts.

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