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LONELY IN THE BRAIN: distrust is toxic and deadly

LONELY IN THE BRAIN: distrust is toxic and deadly
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Illustration: Vsevolod Shvaiba. She burned the diary


Loneliness and the Social Brain: How Social Isolation Impairs Human Interaction under this title, German scientists from the University of Bonn published an article in the Advanced Science in September 2021.

They argue that loneliness is not only a social phenomenon, it is directly related to the activity of the area of the brain that is responsible for building trust.




If interpersonal relationships develop in a pathological way or for some reason do not develop, then the human being experiences a feeling of loneliness. Scientific studies have repeatedly revealed that social isolation leads to various disorders both at the mental and physical levels, creates the risk of premature aging and death.

There is evidence to suggest a correlation between loneliness and obesity, dementia, alcohol and drug abuse. Back in 2017, scientists discovered that there would be people in the human population who feel lonely. On the average, their percentage varies from 10% to 20%. In some age groups, it even reaches 33%, which is a serious social problem and a challenge for public health.




However, establishing certain patterns, scientists clearly found it difficult to determine the neurobiological mechanisms and causes of this phenomenon. However, a motivational theory was put forward. According to it, in the same way that hunger motivates us to search for food, the feeling of loneliness forces us to form stable bonds with other people. Such people have been made by evolution, helping them to survive together.

It explained a lot, but not everything. For example, why do lonely people often begin to perceive social contacts as a threat, demonstrate an egoistic style of behavior, expectation of negative life scenarios, which generates distrust of others? Moreover, even positive social incentives are often unable to fix it.




The University of Bonn noticed that loneliness and feelings of trust are associated with the same areas of the brain. Feelings of loneliness affect brain activity when a person needs to make a decision to trust another or not.

Scientists tested 3678 people and formed two groups: experimental (42 participants) and control (40 participants), preliminary assessing their tendency to interpersonal trust, the number and the variety of social connections, shyness and depressive symptoms. The further experiment was accompanied by an MRI scan of the brain and measurement of the level of oxytocin as a marker of confidence.




Each participant received a starting capital of 10 euros. In order to increase the amount, he had to share the money with another participant. At the same time, he had to understand – will the other participant take the money for himself or will he continue the game? It was necessary to quickly assess the reliability of a person in order to form a relationship. The next situation, which scientists have created, is a positive social interaction: a conversation about a hobby, memories of childhood, or a winning the lottery.

Further, it was found out whether the participant of the experiment liked the interlocutor, how much he can be trusted, how comfortable the distance between them was. It turned out that lonely people are more prone to negative assessments of others, in communication they choose the “trust mode” less often, and their social distance with their interlocutor is on the average 10 cm more.

At the brain level, it was manifested in a decrease during decision-making in the activity of the brain area responsible for the pleasure of communication. Even talking about pleasant things for a lonely person caused a release of oxytocin less than normal.




According to statistics, now in the United States about 29 million people live without a family, and it is 30% more than 25 years ago. 25% of the respondents admit that they have no close friends. It is 15% more than at the end of the last century. The problem of loneliness is not nearly as harmless as it might seem at first glance. In the modern world, it spreads like an epidemic.

Lonely people bring their psycho-emotional toxicity to corporate cultures and negatively affect teams, reducing their efficiency and productivity. That is, a lonely person in the state is a significant economic loss for the company.




A large-scale research program during 1986, 1996, and 2000 showed that people socially associated with those who had experienced an intense loneliness in the past also became lonely over time. At the same time, the degree of their loneliness increased. Thus, loneliness spreads in the social environment like a yawn: as soon as one begins to preach loneliness, he has followers.

The resemblance to a dangerous epidemic like the plague or cholera is supported by statistics. A study of more than 300,000 people suggests that social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or drinking alcohol. American scientists argue that the lack of social support should be included in the list of risk factors for premature death.

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