John Cacioppo on The Lethality of Loneliness at TEDxDesMoines – Transcript
John Cacioppo – Psychologist
When you look out onto the world, it certainly appears the Earth is flat. The ground beneath you is stable and unmoving, and stars and sun circle the Earth.
Hundreds of years ago, elaborated theories were developed based on these common sense observations to explain and predict the reach of the oceans and the movement of celestial bodies. When science demonstrated that these common-sense observations were illusions, and depicted the Earth and the Universe in a completely different way, people slowly came to accept that the world was not as it seemed.
Scientific measurements and sophisticated calculations have repeatedly demonstrated that what we think is intuitive, obvious and common sense cannot be trusted to be true. For that reason, modern sciences based on the denial of common sense until apparently it comes to ourselves: when science confirms a particular way of thinking about our mind and behavior, or depicts it in an unusual and a new way, we tend to be skeptical that such a science is worthwhile even if possible. And instead, we fall back on intuition, prior beliefs, and yes, common sense.
For instance, if I told you, scientific research has demonstrated that opposites attract, wouldn’t you tell me that we don’t need a science to tell us something we already know?
But what if I told you that birds of a feather flock together according to scientific research, wouldn’t you say, we don’t need a science to tell us something we already know?
Or you may have realized already, of course, that these both may be self-evident truths, but they can’t both be true since they are internally inconsistent.
The science of mind and behavior is full of such examples: self-evident truths that both can’t be true. We know, for instance, that two heads are better than one and we know that too many cooks spoil the broth.
The next time you hear a science report of some obvious result, remember that the opposite result was equally obvious, but it’d just been proven to be wrong. It’s obvious that we’re rugged individualists. True, true, true! We’re born to the most prolonged period of dependency, but in our transition to adulthood, we achieve autonomy, independence, to become kings of the mountain, captains of our universe. It’s easy to think about our brain, how’s deep within a cranial vault separated, isolated, protected from others. When we look out into the social world other individuals certainly look distinct, independent, self vicinities with no forces binding them together.
No wonder that we forget that we are member of a social species, born dependent on our parents, for our species to survive. These infants must instantly engage their parents in protective behavior and the parents must care enough about these offspring to nurture and protect them.
Even once grown, we are not particularly splendid specimens. Other animals can run faster, see and smell better, and fight much more effectively than we can. Our evolutionary advantage is our brain and our ability to communicate, plan and reason and work together. Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not on our individual mind.
We are connected across our lifespan to one another, through a myriad of invisible forces, that, like gravity, are ubiquitous and powerful. After all, social species, by definition, create emergent structures that extend beyond an organism, structures that range from couples and families to schools and nations and cultures. These structures evolved hand in hand with neural, hormonal and genetic mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behavior helped these organisms survive, reproduce and leave a genetic legacy.
To grow into an adulthood for a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome.
The evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, notes that if you ask people: “What are the traits of a good person?”, you’ll hear traits such as kind, generous, compassionate and empathic. If you ask people what are the traits of an evil person, you’ll hear traits such as cruel, greedy, exploitative and selfish. Said differently, the traits of a good person depict someone who cares about themselves and others, and an evil person cares about themselves at the expense of others.
Across our biological heritage, our brain and biology has been sculpted to incline us toward certain ways of feeling, thinking and behaving. For instance, we have a number of biological machineries that capitalize on aversive signals to motivate us to act in ways that are essential for our survival.
Hunger, for instance, is triggered by low blood sugar and motivates you to eat, an important early warning system for an organism that’d require much more time and effort to find food than going to the refrigerator door, kitchen cabinet or fast food restaurants.
Thirst is an aversive signal, that motivates us to search for drinkable water prior to falling victim to dehydration. And pain is an aversive system that notifies us of potential tissue damage and motivates us to take care of our physical body.
You might think that the biological warning machinery stops there but there’s more. Although not common sense, although not intuitive, the pain and aversiveness of loneliness, of feeling isolated from those around you, is also a part of biological early warning machinery to alert you to threats and damage to your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper.
Just about all of us have felt physical pain and nearly all of us have felt the heartbreak of home sickness, the agony of bereavement, the torment of unrequited love and the pain of being shunt. All of these are variations on the experience of loneliness.
When I started to study the effects of loneliness and brain and biology a couple of decades ago, loneliness had been characterized as a non-chronic disease without redeeming features. It was even equated with shyness and depression with being a loner, a person with marginal social skills. Scientific measurements and sophisticated calculations, to our surprise, revealed that these were myths.
Science and common sense had again produced two very different depictions of a phenomenon. And yet if you look at the way we are increasingly living our lives, it shows the extent to which we still buy in to those myths of loneliness and values of autonomy and independence. For instance, if you look at the percentage of one-person households in 1940 across the US it was largely less than 15% of the households by state.
Fast-forward to 1970, and it’s grown to be between 15% and 20%.
Fast forward to 2000 and it now exceeds 25% in most states in America. And that light blue state, Utah in the 2010 census has gone darker blue.
The prevalence of loneliness is also on the rise. In the 1980s, scholars estimated that about 20% of Americans felt lonelier than at any given point in time. Two recent nationally representative surveys indicate that this number has doubled, but you don’t hear people talking about feeling lonely, and that’s because loneliness is stigmatized. The psychological equivalent to being a loser in life or a weak person. And this is truly unfortunate because it means we are more likely to deny feeling lonely, which makes no more sense than denying we feel hunger, thirst or pain.
For living with loneliness we now know is the major risk factor for broad-based morbidity and mortality. Consider a couple of the conditions we know about — premature death. Living with air pollution increases your odds of an early death by 5%. Living with obesity, we know, a national health problem, increases your odds of an early death by 20%. Excessive alcohol consumption: 30%. A recent med analysis of around a hundred thousand participants shows that living with loneliness increases your odds of an early death by 45%. We’re not the only social species and the experimental investigation of non-human social animals who were isolated shows they too suffer deleterious physiological consequences and an abbreviated lifespan.
Across our history, as a species, we have survived and prospered by banding together, couples, families and tribes, for mutual protection and assistance. We think of loneliness as a sad condition, but for social species, being on the social perimeters, not only sad, it is dangerous.
The brains of social species, including our own, have evolved to respond to being on the social perimeter by going into a self-preservation mode. If you isolate a rodent and then put it in an open field such as these dots at the bottom of the image, it engages into what’s called predator evasion, it walks around the outside and doesn’t venture into the middle where escape from a flying predator would be more difficult.
When humans feel isolated, they’re too, not only in an unhappy circumstance, but in a dangerous circumstance. And their brains too snap into a self-preservation mode.
In a brain-imaging study that we conducted, we showed people negative images that had nothing to do with other people or negative social images, while they were sitting in a scanner and we were scanning. What we found was the lonelier the brain, when a negative social image was presented, that is in a person’s environment, when something negative socially happened, the brain allocated more attention, greater visual cortical activity depicted in yellow here, to that image.
Now, as you follow that image forward, you come to those two blue areas: that’s a temporal parietal junction. This is a piece of brain tissue that’s involved in theory of mind, in mind reading and mentalizing, in taking another person’s perspective and empathy. It’s responsible for the attentional control required to step out of your head and put yourself, at least figuratively, inside the head of someone else so you can take their point of view.
The lonelier the brain, when something negative in the social context was depicted, the less the activation in this region. It’s dangerous on the social perimeter. When something happens negative in the social environment, that brain is focused on self-preservation, not a concern of the other person.
The similarity in neural and behavioral effects across phylogeny is a testament to the importance of the social environment for social species. And these deep evolutionary roots tilting our brain and biology towards our self-preservation also suggest that much of what’s triggered by social isolation is non-conscious.
For instance, when you feel isolated you feel this motive, this desire, this intention to connect with other people again. What you don’t feel, is that your brain has gone into a hypervigilance for social threats and this hypervigilance means you introduce intentional, confirmatory and even memory biases in terms of those social interactions. And if you’re looking for dangers, you’re more likely to see dangers whether they exist or not, meaning that you’re more likely to have negative interactions. And that threat surveillance of always looking for the next foe activates neuro-biological mechanisms that can degrade your health and lead to early mortality.
Loneliness increases defensiveness because you’re focused on your own welfare rather than taking the position or perspective of people with whom you interact. Loneliness increases depressive symptoms which has the odd effect of decreasing your likelihood of having social conflict and through the acoustic and postural and facial expressions of sadness, such as this child on this picture serves as a signal to others in the vicinity to reconnect with you, if they are willing to do so, so it’s a safe call for connection.
Loneliness increases morning cortisol levels, a powerful stress hormone, the consequence of the brain’s preparation for yet another dangerous day. And loneliness increases pre-potent responding, which means you are more likely to fall victim to a whole host of unhealthy impulsive behaviors.
And the end of the day doesn’t bring an end to the brain’s high alert state. If it’s dangerous to fend off wild beasts by yourself by a stick, imagine how dangerous it is to lay that stick down at night when predators are out and you’re without that safe social surround.
We’ve found that loneliness also decreases sleep salubrity, increases the number of micro awakenings, increases the fragmentation of sleep and thereby decreases the detoxificaxion of stressful days over the course of the night.
Loneliness even alters gene expression such as inflammatory biology to deal with assaults. Not long ago we thought about the genes as the keyboard on which life’s song played out. What this research suggests is that if the genes are the keys on the piano, then the environment including your social environment is the pianist influencing which keys are turned on and off.
Well if loneliness is dangerous, what can we do about it? When we are hungry, we can go to the refrigerator and get a snack. When we are thirsty, we can go to the faucet and draw a glass of water. But when we are lonely, we have no pantry full of friends with whom we can connect and no online social networking does not replace the comforting touch of a friend.
First, recognize what the signal is and don’t deny it.
Second, understand what it does to your brain, to your body, to your behavior. It’s dangerous, as a member of a social species, to feel isolated. And our brain snaps into a self-preservation mode. That brings with it some unwanted and unknown effects on our thoughts and our actions toward others. Be aware of those, understand those effects and take responsibility for your actions toward others.
And third, respond. Understanding that it’s not the quantity of friends, it’s a quality of a few relationships that actually matter. Attend to the three components of connectedness. One can promote intimate connections by developing one individual who’s trusted, in whom you can confide and who can confide in you. You can promote relational connectance by simply sharing good times with friends and family.
We often go to the dinner table happy that we’ve provided for our family, but having forgotten to share any good times with them en route. Collective connectedness can be promoted by becoming a part of something bigger than yourselves. If the obstacles to connection seem insurmountable, consider volunteering for something that you enjoy. Perhaps helping to serve the needy, volunteering in a museum, a zoo, a running club or a TEDx event. Or simply taking time to speak to elders at the retirement home.
Sharing good times is one of the keys to connection. And don’t wait, the next time you feel alienated, isolated or excluded, respond to that aversive signal as you would hunger, thirst and pain and get connected.