It appears persistent feelings of isolation can rewire the brain in ways that serve to reinforce an introspective approach to living.
After comparing magnetic resonance imaging data of people who often reported feeling lonely with those who did not, researchers found several differences in the brains of the lonely.
These differences centred on the so-called default network: a set of brain regions involved in reminiscing, planning, imagination and thinking about others. Researchers found the default networks of lonely people were more firmly enmeshed and contained a higher volume of grey matter.
It’s the perfect cocktail for a way of thinking that is the opposite to looking outward and living in the moment.
“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences," says lead author Nathan Spreng from The Neuro at Canada’s McGill University.
Experts have identified loneliness as a growing health problem in societies where substantive face-to-face contact has largely been supplanted by vapid digital interaction.
Even before the pandemic, the Australian Psychological Society reported that 1 in 2 people felt lonely for at least one day each week.
Research has shown a link between loneliness in older people and an increased risk of dementia.
"We are just beginning to understand the impact of loneliness on the brain,” says study co-author Danilo Bzdok. “Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us to better appreciate the urgency of reducing loneliness in today's society."