The Guardian explored the experience of loneliness not just from the angle of art at the end of last month. As an introvert who is mildly anxious about whether this trait correlates with loneliness I was keen to know more. John Cacioppo’s interview with Tim Adams looks at loneliness from the psychological angle. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.
Loneliness is contagious, heritable, affects one in four people – and increases the chances of early death by 20% – says US social neuroscientist John Cacioppo. The good news? He thinks it can be treated…
Professor John Cacioppo has been studying the effects and causes of loneliness for 21 years. He is the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. His book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection examines the pathology and public health implications of the subject.
You have been studying social connection and loneliness for more than two decades. How did you come to it as a subject?
It was not biographical, I don’t think. Back in the early 90s I had outlined the new field called social neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms within a defined social species. Social species are those that create stable bonds, which have societies and cultures. And neuroscience hadn’t really studied those things.
Was it something that neuroscientists, with their emphasis on individual brains and cells, resisted?
When I proposed it in 1992, I anticipated some kickback from colleagues, so in the original papers I proposed that “social neuroscience isn’t an oxymoron”, and I explained why. That was all well and good, but I quickly realised that theoretical arguments were not going to be enough on their own. I needed to have a convincing demonstration of social neuroscience.
And you chose loneliness for that?
Well, I was originally interested in social connections. I argued we are defined by social connections, so what happens in the brain when you absent those? I took one other step. I said that the brain is the organ for creating, monitoring, nurturing and retaining these social connections, so it didn’t matter whether you actually had these connections, what was important was whether you felt that you had them. There is a big difference between objective isolation and perceived isolation, and very quickly we learned that perceived isolation was loneliness, and that had not been studied.