Neuroscientists at MIT recently conducted an intriguing study that suggests loneliness might be a good thing. Caltech grads will note that there's probably a good joke in here regarding MIT neuroscientists, loneliness, and confirmation bias -- but we're trying to run a classy operation.
As Crystal Dilworth explores in today's DNews report, scientists have long suspected that the feeling of loneliness serves a particular evolutionary purpose. Humans are social animals, and our survival as a species has historically depended on group cooperation. Loneliness, like hunger or pain, is a negative aversive cue designed to spur us into action.
The new study, published in the journal Cell, confirms those suspicions with some hard data concerning neurology -- well, mouse neurology, but still.
Researchers identified a particular region in the mouse brain that responds to perceived isolation. When the mouse was put into a habitat with another mouse friend, a cluster of cells -- let's call them "loneliness neurons" -- showed significant increase in activity.
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By way of a technique called optogenetics, in which individual neurons can be activated or inhibited with light, the research team commenced to messing with the head of the poor, lonely mouse. Stimulation of the loneliness neurons prompted the mouse to spend more time with other mice, suggesting that loneliness causes the behavior of seeking out social interaction.
In follow-up experiments, the researchers tried to determine whether the feeling of loneliness itself was perceived by the mouse as a negative sensation. Indeed it was. Mice consistently took active measures to avoid areas where the loneliness neurons were activated.
The findings reinforce the evolutionary notion that, while loneliness doesn't feel good in the short term, it's a good thing in the long term. Millions of years of evolution have wired our brains to seek out social contact, which keeps us safer and healthier, species-wise.
-- Glenn McDonald
NCBI: Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation
Quanta Magazine: New Evidence for the Necessity of Loneliness
American Psychology Association: The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.