You may have heard the statistic that social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Based on my experience as a neuropsychiatrist studying loneliness, I can confirm it is negatively affecting the well-being of individuals and societies around the world.
A recent study by colleagues and me found that 76% of adult Californians experienced moderate to severe loneliness. Ten thousand miles away, a different study of older adults in rural China estimated 57% experienced moderate loneliness and 21% moderate to severe loneliness. However, there is hope.
The connection between wisdom and loneliness.
The happier news is that our recent research has consistently found wisdom to be related to loneliness: Wiser people are less likely to be lonely and vice versa. That why I consider wisdom—or more specifically, the traits that define wisdom, such as compassion, self-reflection, and decisiveness—an antidote to loneliness.
Wisdom is, in part, a function of biology, its defining traits associated with distinct regions of the human brain. Wisdom can be measured and modified. We can become wiser, faster—and, in doing so, can help address the challenges of loneliness in ourselves and in society.
How your brain responds to loneliness & wisdom.
Earlier this year, Jyoti Mishra, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of California–San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues and me, published a paper that described how specific regions of the brain respond to emotional stimuli related to loneliness and wisdom in opposing ways.
Participants performed a simple cognitive task (they determined which direction an arrow was pointing on a computer screen) while human faces depicting different emotions appeared in the background. The participants also performed assessments to measure their levels of loneliness and wisdom.
We found that when the background faces emoted anger, lonelier individuals paid more attention to the threatening stimuli and their cognitive responses were slower. Conversely, wiser individuals who were less lonely performed the simple cognitive task more quickly when the background consisted of happy faces.
Interestingly, EEGs conducted during the tests showed that a key region of the brain processed visual information differently for the two groups. The temporal-parietal junction (TPJ) integrates information coming from both external and internal sources. This is where the theory of mind (ToM) originates, or more simply, your sense of understanding others’ mental states.
In lonelier participants, the TPJ was more active when they saw angry faces. In wiser people, it was more active in the presence of happy faces.
We also saw greater activity to threatening stimuli among lonelier individuals in the left superior parietal cortex, the brain region important for allocating attention, while in wiser people there was enhanced happy emotion-driven activity in the left insula of the brain, responsible for social characteristics like empathy and compassion.
These findings further confirm the inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom, but they also affirm that loneliness and wisdom are not merely the result of subjective biases. Both are products of the mind and the brain. Having biological markers that we can measure in the brain itself can help researchers and clinicians develop new, effective treatments.
We may be able to help people not only become wiser but also less lonely.