If we have to define the human brain in very few words, we usually say that it is fundamentally a social organ. In fact, many researchers argue that the evolution of the human brain was driven in part by the ability of the species to live in increasingly complex groups. We are social beings and as such we have to belong to a collective. This means that we have an intense desire to form and maintain lasting and meaningful interpersonal relationships.
From the beginning of humanity, social relations played a key role for our survival. Living in a group allowed the human being to organize hunts, collect food, protect each other, create shelters and increase the chance of finding a mate, among many other fundamental qualities. That is why, almost for logical reasons, when we refer to loneliness, we are considering a condition definitely contrary to the nature of the organ that makes us human.
At present, the role of social relations has expanded to impressive scales. However, in this hyperconnected world, in full effervescence of social networks and instant communications, there are many people who feel lonely. Statistics indicate that a quarter of the world’s population says they have no one to talk to. Social isolation has become a major public health problem of our time. So much so, that it was postulated that loneliness is an epidemic of the present (and the future).
Sometimes it is usually thought that loneliness is a consequence of shyness, depression, introversion or deficient social skills. But scientific studies have shown that these characterizations are incorrect: loneliness is a unique condition in which a person perceives himself as socially isolated, even when he is among others. It is an unpleasant emotional experience that is de-sencadena before the discrepancy between the interpersonal relationships that one wants to have and those that he thinks he has. In this way, feeling alone does not necessarily mean being physically alone.
What happens when we experience this perception of loneliness? We stopped feeling the protection and care of the group and we noticed a sense of danger. The old mode of self-preservation is then activated in our brain.
From this activation, it is considered that the world is insecure because we do not have the protection of the group. Then it increases our alertness to possible threats, thus generating the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In addition, sleep is affected, which fragments and ceases to be a restful sleep, also increases the activation of the stress circuit and weakens the immune system. Likewise, studies suggest that, when we feel alone, we process negative social information more quickly and, consequently, as a vicious circle, we have a more hostile and defensive posture in social interactions. On the other hand, behavioral disorders such as impulsive behaviors, alcoholism, irritability and even suicidal ideas can be associated with loneliness.
When the feeling of loneliness becomes chronic, these biological changes bring negative repercussions on mental and physical health, such as, for example, cardiovascular risk. We must warn that chronic loneliness is currently an important risk factor for mortality. To fully understand this, let us think that, for example, air pollution increases the probability of mortality by 5%; obesity, 20%; and excessive alcohol consumption, 30%; whereas it is considered that chronic loneliness increases mortality by 45%.
Older adults are usually the group with the greatest risk of feeling alone, as they are often conditioned by factors such as the loss of a partner, living away from the family and the lack of work ties that give a meaning and social identity. Also, numerous studies show that the current sense of loneliness also affects adolescents, young people, parents, people with disabilities and people in charge of caring for family members.
We have to worry about having an active social life. It has been found that there would be less cognitive impairment in those who have greater social activity. Thus, we can consider two major predictors of life expectancy: close relationships (to whom we can ask for something if we need it, who accompanies us to the doctor if we are sick, whom we tell – and who we know will listen to us – our problems more senses, for example) and social interaction (greeting the waiter of the bar when we went in for a coffee, chatting with the diariero when we bought a magazine, commenting on the previous day’s game with our neighbor).
This contact must be personal, since, what we know well, it is not the same to interact in social networks or through chat that face to face. In personal interactions, a cascade of chemical messengers-neurotransmitters-is released that reinforce, as well as vaccines, our immune system for the present and for the future. Therefore, we have to promote this social contact. It is good for us to look at a person’s face, shake hands or hug them. And it also does the other good. These are situations that release oxytocin, lower cortisol levels, reduce stress, increase confidence levels and release dopamine, which produces a sensation of pleasure and influences pain. According to statistics, chronic loneliness is a problem which is increasing in industrialized countries, which has an impact on the physical and mental health of their communities.
For this reason, in countries such as the United Kingdom, a Ministry of Soledad has been created, whose objective is to solve the social problems related to this epidemic through multidisciplinary programs that address the housing, educational, health and social issues. Some may wonder why the State should get involved in something so intimate. Precisely because it is an institution that was created to care for and promote the well-being of people throughout their lives.
In addition, the problems associated with this condition demand a lot of resources from health systems. Intervention strategies directed to this issue are indispensable. A viable option is to expand the opportunities for volunteer work to promote social interaction while providing collaboration with other people or causes, both very beneficial to the feeling of well-being. We know that altruism activates brain circuits that produce pleasure, as well as eating something rich or making money.
In addition, voluntary work after retirement helps seniors maintain a purpose in life. Of course, it is important to develop broad strategies, and continue to collect statistics and evidence without losing sight of the people who suffer. The bridge between science and public policy must be increasingly strong. And, in such a case, leave to the world of literature that sentence to a hundred years of solitude for certain strains without even a second chance on Earth.
Facundo Manes holds a PhD in Sciences from the University of Cambridge, a neurologist, neuroscientist, Conicet researcher and the Australian Research Council (ACR) Center of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, president of the FundaciónIneco and professor at Favaloro University (Argentina), University of California San Francisco -UCSF-, Medical University of South Carolina (USA) and Macquarie University (Australia).