Loneliness- an evolved alarm system?

Loneliness is a big problem, now being called the loneliness epidemic it is affecting more and more people across the globe.

The research into the physical and psychological detriment loneliness has on our bodies and minds has now been well documented. Research suggests loneliness can increase risk for early mortality by up to 26%. As dangerous for long-term health as cigarettes and obesity it is killing us, literally.

Importantly loneliness is defined as the subjective difference between perceived and actual social relationships, it is about how we feel in a given situation. It is significantly different to isolation (an objective experience of being alone) or solitude (time spent alone without distress or discomfort).

But why do we feel lonely? What is the purpose of this emotionally painful and physically damaging experience?

One theory that has been argued is that we have evolved to feel lonely when we are lacking social connections to ensure our survival. Humans are inherently social creatures, this is a key way in which we can organize and protect ourselves and therefore pass on our genes to the next generation.

Loneliness has been found to be a heritable trait. While environmental factors arguably play a bigger part in an ongoing experience of loneliness, the genes impacting an individuals susceptibility to loneliness can be passed on from one generation to the next. This leads to an argument that people who felt lonely might have been more motivated to seek out social connections, therefore, leading to a greater chance of survival and the proliferation of their genes.

This theory has been developed and argued by a number of scholars most notably John Cacioppo who comments that: “We have survived as a species not because we’re fast or strong or have natural weapons in our fingertips, but because of social protection.” (reference).

In neuroscientific research into the effects of loneliness on the brain, researchers have found that we have what is known as a ‘stress response’ to feeling lonely. Commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, our brains increase production of norepinephrine and cortisol activating physiological changes. This reaction affects our brain functioning, prolonged periods of time in this stressed state affects the immune system and ultimately our long-term health.

Researchers in a series of studies at the University of Leuven, University of Chicago and VU University Amsterdam have found that the experience of loneliness “indicates that important social connections are at risk or absent and acts as a motivating force to reconnect with others.”

Maybe loneliness is the way our bodies tell us something is wrong and push us towards making and fostering social connections that could ensure our survival and the passing on of our genes. In Loneliness, Human nature and the need for social connection Cacioppo and William note about the evolutionary basis of loneliness: “Serving as a prompt to repair frayed social bonds, the pain of loneliness engendered a fear response so powerfully disruptive that even now, millions of years later, a persistent sense of rejection or isolation can impair DNA transcription in our immune cells.” (reference)

So how does this play out in modern times? In evolutionary terms, our world has changed much more quickly than our bodies and brains have evolved. Could this explain the rise in loneliness in the modern world? We are calling out for the social connections we need for survival, even though in practice we have the skills and abilities to procreate and survive without constant human connection. In most industrialized societies we no longer need to band together for protection against wild animals or rely solely on social and familial ties to raise children to adulthood.

In a world where we often feel we can prosper alone and individuality is the key to success, is our bodily response to loneliness the last sign that we really do need to connect with one another?

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