Loneliness changes the way the human brain perceives relationships, according to a new study, demonstrating a ‘lonelier’ neural response to different kinds of relationships compared to that of people who aren’t lonely. The findings were based on MRI brain scans that focused on activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) where a personal social network ‘map’ is stored.
The study comes from the Society for Neuroscience, which found that loneliness changes the way the brain responds to thoughts of one’s own self, celebrities, friends, and people who are only acquaintances. In people who aren’t suffering from loneliness, the MRIs show that the closer someone is to another person, the more their brain activity resembles the perception of self.
In non-lonely people, brain activity was different for every relationship category, whereas it was more similar in people who suffer from loneliness. The study found that in lonely participants, the brain activity displayed while thinking about one’s own self was more distant from the activity displayed when thinking about others in various categories.
This difference causes lonelier people to perceive a larger gap between themselves and other people, including those they consider friends, putting them closer to the same level of acquaintances and celebrities. The activity reflects this perception, highlighting the profound changes loneliness can have on the brain itself.
This study joins another from the University of Bristol, which found that loneliness makes it harder for smokers to give up the habit. The study pinpointed prolonged loneliness as the cause of excessive smoking rather than the other way around, highlighting one of the health issues that may arise as a consequence of social isolation.