Scientists can now scan your brain to see if you’re lonely

Loneliness is a feeling we’re all familiar with to a certain degree. Even the most popular and outgoing among us have dealt with the occasional lonely day. Now, while an odd Saturday night spent in bed isn’t going to be too detrimental to anyone’s health, prolonged loneliness and isolation is a recipe for psychological distress. After all, as humans, we often define ourselves through the eyes of the people around us. 

On that note, a new study from Dartmouth College has uncovered a novel way for modern science to detect loneliness in patients using nothing more than a brain scan. The team at Dartmouth says that the closer one feels to another person emotionally, the more similarly that friend will be represented in the individual’s brain. On the other hand, lonelier people’s brains tend to create a more separate “neural self-representation.”

Essentially, when we are social and connected with other people our brains look pretty much the same when thinking about ourselves and others. However, when someone is feeling lonely and isolated, their neural activity is quite different when thinking about others in comparison to the self.

“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 really differentiated from that of other people,” explains senior study author Meghan L. Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, and director of the Dartmouth Social Neuroscience Lab, in a university release.

A group of 50 college students and or community members (ages 18-47) was gathered for this research. Each person underwent an fMRI scan, but before that everyone was asked to write down and rank five people they are very close to, and another five more casual acquaintances. 

Then, as each participant was having their brain scanned, they were asked to consider some of their own personality traits, as well as traits among the five friends and acquaintances they had just listed. Additionally, everyone was also asked to think about personality quirks among five celebrities of their choosing. For themselves, as well as each friend, acquaintance, and celebrity, participants were told to indicate how much a particular trait (friendliness, aggression, etc) described a person using a scale of one to four.

The research team’s analysis of the fMRI brain scans revealed several fascinating revelations. First and foremost, participants’ brains seemed to cluster or group together individuals into the following groups: oneself, one’s social group and connections, and celebrities that one “knows” but not personally. 

If a participant reported feeling particularly close to someone, their brain represented that person in the same way throughout their entire “social brain.” This held true even within the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which is responsible for a person’s sense of self and individuality.

Conversely, lonelier people who reported few or even no close social bonds displayed much more varied neural activity in the MPFC regarding themselves and others. It was also harder for the study’s authors to even recognize the boundaries between the three groups of friends, acquaintances, and celebrities. Probably due to the depressing fact that, for lonely people, there isn’t all that much of a difference between celebrities seen on the screen or actual people in day-to-day life.

“It’s almost as if you have a specific constellation of neural activity that is activated when you think about yourself,” professor Meyer adds. “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.”

All in all, these findings are providing some major new information on how the brain relates to and processes loneliness and isolation. Even on a purely neural level, when we’re lonely we can’t help but see ourselves as different from other people. 

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.