A pioneering neuroscientist reveals the reasons for loneliness and what to do about it.
John T. Cacioppo’s groundbreaking research topples one of the pillars of modern medicine and psychology: the focus on the individual as the unit of inquiry. By employing brain scans, monitoring blood pressure, and analyzing immune function, he demonstrates the overpowering influence of social context—a factor so strong that it can alter DNA replication. He defines an unrecognized syndrome—chronic loneliness—brings it out of the shadow of its cousin depression, and shows how this subjective sense of social isolation uniquely disrupts our perceptions, behavior, and physiology, becoming a trap that not only reinforces isolation but can also lead to early death. He gives the lie to the Hobbesian view of human nature as a “war of all against all,” and he shows how social cooperation is, in fact, humanity’s defining characteristic. Most important, he shows how we can break the trap of isolation for our benefit both as individuals and as a society.
Eleanor Rigby might have been in worse shape than the Beatles imagined: not only lonely but angry, depressed and in ill health. University of Chicago research psychologist Cacioppo shows in studies that loneliness can be harmful to our overall well-being. Loneliness, he says, impairs the ability to feel trust and affection, and people who lack emotional intimacy are less able to exercise good judgment in socially ambiguous situations; this makes them more vulnerable to bullying as children and exploitation by "unscrupulous salespeople" in old age. But Cacioppo and Patrick (editor of the Journal of Life Sciences) want primarily to apply evolutionary psychology to explain how our brains have become hard-wired to have regular contact with others to aid survival. So intense is the need to connect, say the authors, that isolated individuals sometimes form "parasocial relations" with pets or TV characters. The authors' advice for dealing with loneliness psychotherapy, positive thinking, random acts of kindness are overly general, but this isn't a self-help book. It does present a solid scientific look at the physical and emotional impact of loneliness. 12 illus.