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Brain scans reveal that lonely people process the world in unique ways

[July 15, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Non-lonely individuals share similar brain processing, every lonely person perceives the world through a unique, idiosyncratic lens. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy may have captured an unseen truth about the human condition in his famous opening line of Anna Karenina, stating, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A recent study might have found an equivalent principle in the realm of loneliness, positing that while non-lonely individuals share similar brain processing, every lonely person perceives the world through a unique, idiosyncratic lens.

This ground-breaking research, published in the prestigious journal, Psychological Science, was spearheaded by scholar Elisa Baek, now serving at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.


Baek's study digs deep into the neurological underpinnings of loneliness, an emotion increasingly recognized as detrimental to both personal well-being and public health. The United States Surgeon General's office, in fact, has recently characterized loneliness as a public health crisis. This comes in response to alarming statistics revealing that approximately half of American adults, pre-pandemic, reported experiencing significant levels of loneliness.

The Idiosyncratic Nature of Loneliness

During her postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, Baek embarked on a journey to understand the neuroscience behind feelings of disconnection and being misunderstood, the harbingers of loneliness.


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Assisted by her team, she utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a sophisticated neuroimaging technique, to peek into the brains of 66 first-year college students as they watched a variety of video clips. The videos ranged from sentimental music videos to lively party scenes and dynamic sporting events, thus presenting a wide spectrum of situations to assess.

The study participants, between 18 and 21 years of age, completed the UCLA Loneliness Scale prior to the scanning process. This survey is a respected tool in psychology, designed to measure a person's subjective feelings of loneliness and perceived social isolation. The responses to the survey helped segregate the participants into two distinct categories: the lonely and the non-lonely.


As the participants viewed the videos, their brain activity was captured using fMRI. In the next stage, the researchers compared the brain imaging data of the two groups, leading to a profound discovery. The lonelier individuals displayed more divergent and idiosyncratic brain processing patterns than their non-lonely counterparts.

The Significance of Neural Similarity

This revelation uncovers an important facet of human cognition. Neural similarity, indicating how alike the brain activity patterns are between different individuals, correlates to a shared understanding of the world. This shared perspective plays a crucial role in forging social bonds. Loneliness, therefore, is not only associated with a deviation from the societal norm of processing worldly events, but it also implies that each lonely individual perceives the world in their unique way. This individualistic processing can exacerbate feelings of isolation and lack of social connections.


"It was surprising to find that lonely people were even less similar to each other," said Baek. She highlighted the plight of lonely individuals who struggle to form social connections due to the lack of commonality with both lonely and non-lonely groups. "The 'Anna Karenina principle' is a fitting description of lonely people, as they experience loneliness in an idiosyncratic way, not in a universally relatable way," she added.

The Chicken-or-Egg Dilemma

The implications of this study raise a classic chicken-or-egg question. Does the idiosyncratic processing in lonely individuals cause loneliness, or is it an outcome of being lonely?


The research indicated that individuals exhibiting high levels of loneliness, irrespective of their number of friends or social connections, were more likely to demonstrate idiosyncratic brain responses. This evidence suggests that merely being surrounded by people who perceive the world differently could be a risk factor for loneliness, regardless of the frequency of social interactions. It implies that the quality, not just the quantity, of our social connections might be essential in understanding loneliness.

Additionally, the research sheds light on the dynamic nature of social connections or disconnections. These fluctuations over time may influence the degree to which an individual interprets the world idiosyncratically.


Future Research Directions

Going forward, Baek's curiosity is piqued by those who, despite having friends and being socially active, still feel lonely. She plans to explore specific situations where lonely individuals exhibit unique processing. For instance, do lonely individuals display peculiar responses when confronted with unexpected events or ambiguous social contexts with multiple interpretations?

Overall, Baek's study significantly advances our understanding of loneliness, a pervasive and damaging condition. By highlighting the idiosyncratic processing patterns of lonely individuals, this research underscores the need for personalized approaches in dealing with loneliness at a societal level.

For more science stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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