Social isolation has always been associated with poorer physical and mental health; But scientists are just beginning to understand its neural effects.
Severe isolation has strange effects on the human mind. In late 1964, Josie Larissa and Anthony Sunny hid in two caves in the French Alps as part of an experiment to understand the effects of isolation on body and mind. When Sunni came out of the cave after 126 days of isolation, he thought less time had passed.
In 1972, Michel Seifer , a French caveman, stepped over and spent six months in a cave near Del Rio, Texas. “It was not physically exhausting,” he told Der Spiegel four decades later; “But it was psychologically hell.”
Trying to isolate yourself in the lab is even more annoying. According to Wired , in the 1950s , Canadian psychologist Donald Heb paid McGill University graduate students $ 20 per day for being alone in small rooms.
Volunteers’ hands were placed in cardboard tubes, their corners covered with thick U-shaped pillows, and matte glasses were placed over their eyes.
Soon their mental cognition deteriorated and they experienced severe restlessness and vivid delusions. One student reported that he felt his body was in two places at the same time and did not know which one was really his.
Humans rarely experience such severe social isolation; But studies have shown that even in normal life, increasing loneliness has a negative effect on physical and mental health.
A review of science alone found that people with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over a period of time than those with weaker social relationships.
Other studies have linked loneliness to cardiovascular disease, inflammation and depression.
We have known since the 1980s that people who are more socially isolated tend to have poorer health; But we still do not know why loneliness is so closely linked to health.
Do isolated people usually have other risk factors for certain diseases, or is there something about loneliness that gradually degrades health by reorganizing neural connections?
For researchers studying loneliness, Covid Universalization has provided 19 unprecedented natural experiments on the potential effects of social isolation on the brain. As millions of people around the world recover from months of declining social contact, neuroscientists are taking a fresh look at why social relationships are so important to our health.
The link between loneliness and poor health has been well established; But scientists have recently been able to gain a glimpse of how social isolation manifests itself in the brain. The discovery began with a failed experiment.
Gillian Matthews at the Royal College of Physicians in London was trying to figure out how drug addiction affects the connection of specific neurons in a part of the brain called the posterior raphe nucleus. Matthew divided the mice into two groups.
He injected cocaine into one group of mice and saline to another; But as he tried, he continued to see that the neural connections of the posterior raphe nucleus were becoming stronger in both groups of mice.
Matthews found that these new neural connections had little to do with drugs. Both groups of mice were kept in isolation for 24 hours before the start of the experiment.
What Matthews witnessed was the effect that social isolation had on the brain.
This accidental discovery opened a new way of thinking about loneliness. If we could see the effects of social isolation on the brains of mice, it would mean that loneliness is not just a description of a situation in the outside world; It can also point to something inside.
Understanding this took Matthews’ career to a new level. He dropped out of drug addiction research and went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013 to join Dr. Kay Tai’s lab .
Tai is a neuroscientist who has studied the neural basis of emotion and is also a pioneer in optogenetics. Optogenetics is a technique in which genetically engineered proteins enter the brain cells of animals.
This allows researchers to turn neurons on and off by shining light through fiber optic cables into the brains of living animals. In this way, scientists can activate areas of the brain and at the same time observe the response of animals.
Matthews and Tai wanted to use optogenetic techniques to study how posterior raphe nucleus neurons affect mice during social isolation.
When the researchers stimulated the neurons, the animals were more likely to look for other mice. When they suppressed the same neurons, even isolated animals lost the desire to interact socially.
Matthews and Ty seemed to have found the nerve key that controlled the animals’ desire for social interaction.
This key was turned on when they were isolated and turned off when their desire for social interaction was satisfied.
Matthews says that just as there are mechanisms to ensure food and water consumption, there are mechanisms to help maintain social contact. This shows that social contact is not only good, but also a basic need that the brain is organized to search for. This has already been shown in studies on bees, ants and mice.
In some species, reduced levels of social contact jeopardize survival.
In 2020, another neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an article showing that the human brain responds to social isolation in the same way as it did in Matthew’s mice. Livia Tomova recruited 40 volunteers and asked them to hand over their smartphones, tablets and laptops and stay in a room alone for 10 hours.
Volunteers could entertain themselves with puzzle books and writing tools; But they were not allowed access to stories that might contain signs of social contact and reduce their isolation.
If the volunteers needed to use the bathroom, they had to use the earphone so that they could not interrupt any conversation. “We tried to create a scenario in which people really had no input,” said Tomova, now at Cambridge University.
Optogenetics are very aggressive for use in humans, so Tomova took fMRI scans from participants’ brains.
When volunteers were shown isolated images of social cues, craving-related brain areas were activated in the same way that hungry human brains were activated when they saw images of food.
The area of the brain that Tomova focused on is rich in dopamine neurons that guide our motivation and expectations of the world around us.
These neurons are activated when the brain predicts rewarding activity (such as eating or socializing); But if we do not access the expected interactions, the brain experiences a negative and greedy feeling.
This may explain the negative consequences of long-term isolation, Tomova says. “If you are under long-term stress , these same adaptations that are healthy and necessary in the first place will actually be harmful because they are not designed to be long-term states,” he says.
The new findings raise a number of questions about understanding social isolation and its impact on health.
Are there any neurological differences between people who experience short-term isolation and those who experience long-term isolation? What kind of social interactions satisfy our social craving? Is video calling enough to meet our need for social contact, or should there be face-to-face communication?
Although we have known for decades about the relationship between social isolation and health, we still do not have convincing answers to any of these questions.
Julian Holt Lunstad , a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in the United States and author of two major studies on social isolation and health, says there has been evidence for a long time; But it is not well understood.
“We have a lot of data that strongly shows that both isolation and loneliness increase our risk of premature death, and conversely, having social connections is protective and reduces our risk,” he said.
Holt Lunstad thinks secularism can be a turning point in our understanding of loneliness and a wake-up call for reflection.
In 2018, the British government launched its first solitary strategy. The Public Health Service (NHS) has also begun directing people to social clubs and other activities in an effort to reduce loneliness.
Holt Lonstadt says the issue of loneliness is important in terms of public health and should be considered, and as policies are implemented, these policies should be evaluated and amended as needed.
Solving the problem of loneliness and understanding what helps and what is useless requires understanding the different experiences of people experiencing isolation.
Stepto Andrew“We don’t know much about what happens when people go from being alone to socializing,” says a professor of psychology and epidemiology at University College London.
He has been studying the health of people who change from living alone to living with someone else, but it is difficult to discern which effects are due to changes in social isolation and which are due to other factors.
“Trying to study isolation or loneliness in humans is not easy,” says Tomova.
“In humans, being alone is not necessarily related to the number of people around you.” He is particularly interested in the impact that globalization may have on young people whose cognitive and social skills are still developing.
“I think we will potentially see differences in how social behavior develops or something like that,” he says. But, as is always the case in solitary research in the unknown world, the opposite may also be true.
Most people may be fine in this regard, as social media may well meet our social needs.