Your brain shows if you are lonely or not

For lonelier people, the neural activity was differentiated from that of other people.

Social connection is critical to well-being, yet how the brain reflects our attachment to other people remains mostly unknown.

A new study by the Dartmouth University, combined univariate and multivariate brain imaging analyses. Scientists wanted to assess whether and how the brain organizes representations of others based on how connected they are to our own identity. The study reveals that the closer you feel to people emotionally, the more similarly you represent them in your brain. In contrast, people who feel social disconnection appear to have a lonelier, neural self-representation.

Senior author Meghan L. Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences said, “If we had a stamp of neural activity that reflected your self-representation and one that reflected that of people whom you are close to, for most of us, our stamps of neural activity would look pretty similar. Yet, for lonelier people, the neural activity was differentiated from that of other people.”

A total of 50 college students and community members, ranging from ages 18 to 47, were involved in the study. During an fMRI scan, participants completed a self- and other-reflection task for 16 targets: the self, five close others, five acquaintances, and five celebrities. Plus, they reported they reported their subjective closeness to each target and their trait loneliness.

The activity patterns of these brain regions reflect self-other closeness: the closer the relationship, the more the patterns resemble each other
The activity patterns of these brain regions reflect self-other closeness: the closer the relationship, the more the patterns resemble each other. Credit: Courtney and Meyer, JNeurosci 2020

The results showed how the brain seemed to cluster representations of people into three different cliques: 1) oneself, 2) one’s social network, and 3) well-known people, like celebrities.

The closer participants felt to somebody, the more also their brains represent them all through the social brain, remembering for the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the region related to the idea of self. Lonelier people indicated less neural similarity among themselves as well as other people in the MPFC, and the demarcations between the three cliques were blurrier in their neural activity. As such, the lonelier people are, the less similar their brain looks when they consider themselves as well as other people.

Senior author Meghan L. Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, said, “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.”

The study has shown that how loneliness seems to be associated with distortions in the neural mapping of social connections with others.

Journal Reference:
  1. Andrea L. Courtney et al., Self-other representation in the social brain reflects social connection. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2826-19.2020

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