Creative people often feel isolated

What lockdown does to our heads

Man is a social being who likes to surround himself with his own kind. Loneliness is a condition that he would like to avoid as much as possible, a suffering that can also be felt in society. What exactly do you feel?

You feel abandoned, unloved, infinitely empty. Confined in this way, one also harbors more distrust of fellow human beings and tends to become depressed. Studies confirm this as well as the tendency of lonely people to drink more alcohol and eat unhealthy food. Unsurprisingly, these are also more prone to obesity. The facts show that loneliness has a life-shortening effect.

In recent years, the number of people who feel this isolated has increased. In June 2019, a growing proportion of 45 to 84-year-olds affected between 2011 and 2017 was reported in Germany. In individual age groups, the proportion is said to have increased by almost 60 percent compared to the beginning of the comparison period.

The reasons for loneliness are many. Of course, Corona and the lockdown associated with the increasing number of cases has increased the suffering in this regard: According to the Corona Panel of the University of Vienna, the number of those who feel lonely has risen to the level of spring with the current lockdown.

At the end of March that was 17 percent of the 1,500 respondents. In the meantime, relaxation came with the easing during the summer months. The unemployed and young people particularly often complain about the condition, not so much the older population, who have been advised to isolate themselves due to the risk of getting seriously ill with Covid-19.

Central in the forehead area

But what happens in the mind of lonely people? How is the inner emptiness that you feel? It was known that loneliness makes you sick, but that has been puzzled over for many years. Thanks to modern imaging methods, scientists have recently collected a great deal of new information about this in several studies.

This summer, for example, Andrea Courtney from Stanford University and Meghan Meyer from Dartmouth College examined the brain activity of 43 test subjects while they were thinking about themselves, their friends and celebrities.

The reactions observed via magnetic resonance imaging were different in all cases, according to the im Journal of Neuroscience published paper. Regardless of which circuit in the brain became active, the focus was always on the prefrontal cortex in the forehead area of ​​the brain, which in the scientific literature is associated with planning, attention and decisions.

Clear difference

It was astonishing that the scans of test subjects who described themselves as lonely differed significantly from those who saw themselves as well connected. The authors write that the activities of their circuits were more separated from each other - whether the test subjects had thought about themselves, friends or celebrities. "The social brain," it is said, has maintained the exchange of information in other areas.

Sudden isolation, as happens in many cases during the corona lockdown, in turn leads to brain activity that research knows of people after an extended period of fasting. Just recently, scientists at MIT in Boston, USA, asked 40 healthy volunteers and students into voluntary self-isolation on the university campus.

Longing for interaction

The study participants sat individually and on different days for ten hours in a windowless room. They could not use a cell phone, but had a computer at their disposal so that they could possibly contact the research team. Food was put in front of the door.

Then each subject went to magnetic resonance imaging. The researchers concentrated on their analysis, which was carried out in Nature Neuroscience appeared on the substantia nigra in the midbrain, which is active in the case of food cravings and substance abuse. And they showed the study participants pictures of people talking to each other, pictures of food and photos of flowers.

In fact, the substantia nigra clearly showed activity, the greater the extent to which the participants experienced the longing for social interaction. Those who hardly felt lonely in everyday life showed more reactions in the aforementioned brain region, those who otherwise felt isolated did not experience the voluntary isolation as intensely.

Perhaps that is one reason why many people report that they are not overly lonely in the corona pandemic: For them, this is an exceptional situation that hardly stands out from everyday life. It will only be possible to question this information in detail through further research. (Peter Illetschko, November 28, 2020)