If loneliness is just a feeling produced by being physically distant from other human beings, why isn’t it cured by just being around other humans? The answer lies in how the brain reacts with the conception of how your brain relates to itself and others.
New research highlights how the brains of people who report themselves as lonely react to themselves and others. The differences between the brains of people who don’t characterize themselves as lonely can be seen in their neural patterns.
To illustrate the connection between the brain and social cognition on a personal level, researchers looked at the neural patterns in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The brain forms signals and maps associated with specific patterns when thinking about themselves, people they are close to, people they don’t know, and people in the media they know of but who are strangers.
Like the intersecting lines in a Venn diagram, your brain’s awareness of yourself would be in the middle. The people that you feel emotionally close to, like your friends and family, cause your brain to increase activity in mPFC based on characteristics of how socially close you are to them. The brain activates and lights up different regions in the cortex depending on how we perceive ourselves and others.
For people who do not describe themselves as lonely, there is an overlap of activity between the region which lights up when you think about yourself and the other category of attachments. The most overlap occurs between close friends and yourself. The further away you get from people you know well, such as celebrities, the more distance between the area which represents yourself and the area which is activated by thoughts of distant acquaintances.
However, in people who described themselves as lonely, there was little to no overlap between the regions activated from thinking of themselves versus others in their social sphere. Lonely individuals have less activation overall in their mPFC, even for people to whom they are closely attached. The overlap between others and themselves is lower, and their identities are spatially distant from the areas which are activated by other people.
This is called a “self-other gap.” The study’s authors believe that this explains why some people who express feelings of loneliness do not feel relief by being surrounded by people that should be close to them. The psychological phenomenon of the self-other gap appears to be related to specific patterns occurring in the brain while perceiving the self vs. others.
Courtney, Andrea L., and Meghan L. Meyer. “Self-Other Representation in the Social Brain Reflects Social Connection.” The Journal of Neuroscience, 2020, doi:10.1523/jneurosci.2826-19.2020.