The volunteers at the University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory, all otherwise young and healthy, were tied together by really only one thing: nearly off-the-chart scores on the most widely used scale measuring loneliness.
Asked how often they felt they had no one they could turn to, how often they felt their relationships seemed superficial and forced, how often they felt alone, left out, isolated or no longer closer to anyone, the answer, almost always, was “always.”
The volunteers agreed to be randomly dosed over eight weeks with either pregnenolone, a hormone naturally produced by the body’s adrenal gland, or a placebo. Two hours after swallowing the assigned tablet, the university’s researchers captured and recorded their brain activity while the participants looked at pictures of emotional faces or neutral scenes.
Studies in animals suggest that a single injection of pregnenolone can reduce or “normalize” an exaggerated threat response in socially isolated lab mice, similar to the kind of hyper vigilance lonely people feel that makes them poor at reading other people’s intentions and feelings.
The researchers have every hope the drug will work in lonely human brains, too, although they insist the goal is not an attempt to cure loneliness with a pill.
Lead researcher and neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo has likened using a drug to rubbing frost from a windshield. Loneliness increases both a desire to connect with others, and a gut instinct for self-preservation (“if I let you get close to me, you’ll only hurt me, too”). People become more wary, cautious and self-centred. The idea is to help people see things as they are, “rather than being afraid of everyone,” Cacioppo said in an interview with Smithsonian.com.
For some, the idea of a pharmacological buffer against loneliness is just another sign of the creeping medicalization of everyday human woes: Wouldn’t a pill for loneliness only make us more indifferent, more disconnected? Is it really the best we can do to fix the modern world’s so-called epidemic of loneliness?
Life is loneliness
Headlines suggest we’ve become consumed by loneliness, a new generation of Eleanor Rigbys half a century after the Beatles lament for the lonely: Why are 30somethings lonely? What You Need to Know about the Loneliness Epidemic. Loneliness is a human catastrophe. A recent Angus Reid Institute survey found that nearly half of Canadians sometimes or often feel alone. In the U.S., the number of Americans who feel they have no one with whom they can speak to has tripled since 1985.
“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear,” Sylvia Plath wrote in journals published nearly four decades ago. Today, people across the West are reporting higher levels of persistent loneliness than ever before.
But is the epidemic real? Are we truly more lonesome than generations past, or have we simply lost the capacity, the tolerance, to be alone? Are the digital technologies that enable us to have instant contact and faux friendships distancing us from meaningful ones? Is it fair to pin the blame on our digital culture, or is the course of western politics, the rise of populism and individualism really the cause?
To those testing the loneliness pill, a “therapeutic” little helper, the epidemic is certainly real.
“Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed and self-centred, and is associated with a 26 per cent increase in the risk of premature mortality,” Cacioppo and her late husband, John Cacioppo, wrote in The Lancet last year. Around a third of people in industrialized countries report feeling lonely, one in 12 severely so, and the proportions are increasing, they warned.
The Angus Reid study, conducted in partnership with the faith-based think tank Cardus, found that four in 10 Canadians surveyed said they often or sometimes wished they had someone to talk to, but don’t. One quarter said they would rather have less time alone, led by 18- to 34-year-olds. Women under 35 expressed more feelings of loneliness than any other age group.
In a poll of 20,000 Americans last year, nearly half said they lack companionship or meaningful relationships. One in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Six in 10 Britons recently told pollsters their pet is their closest companion.
Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed and self-centred, and is associated with a 26 per cent increase in the risk of premature mortality
“Nearly 30 million Americans live alone, many not out of preference,” said Christophe Lane, author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. In Canada, the proportion of the population living in one-person households has quadrupled over the past three generations in Canada to 28 per cent in 2016, from seven per cent in 1951.
Life expectancy is growing, fertility rates are falling and the population is aging. We’re marrying later and having fewer children, if any at all. Technology means we can do almost all we need to do from home without physically interacting with a single human soul, and a chronic lack of connectedness, of being on the social periphery, can be seriously harmful, even deadly.
Studies suggest loneliness is more detrimental to health than obesity, physical inactivity or polluted air. Chronic loneliness, and not the transient kind that comes with a significant life disruption, such as moving cities for work, or the death of a partner, has been linked with an increased risk of developing or dying from coronary artery disease, stroke, elevated blood pressure, dementia and depressed immunity.
A study published in May found lonely people have shorter telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes, like the tip of a shoelace. Telomeresget shorter every time a cell divides, and shorter telomeres are considered a sign of accelerated aging. Loneliness and isolation have been linked to mental health problems — depression and anxiety — even in other social species, like rats.
Loneliness has also been blamed for helping fuel the opioid crisis, political upheaval and lone shooters. Lonely people “turn to angry politics” when they have a void to fill, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in The New York Times. The man accused of killing 22 people at a popular Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, last weekend was an “extreme loner,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Still, loneliness, in and of itself, isn’t a disease, but a feeling, a discrepancy, as the Cacioppos have described it, between our “preferred and actual social relationships.” Feeling alone isn’t the same as being alone. And being alone doesn’t mean feeling alone. People can feel lonely in a crowd, coupled or uncoupled.
“Loneliness is a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation; an emotional lack that concerns a person’s place in the world,” cultural historian Dr. Fay Bound Alberti wrote in the journal, Emotion Review.
Yet despite its prevalence, people don’t often talk about loneliness. “It’s the psychological equivalent to being a loser in life, or a weak person,” John Cacioppo, who spent decades studying loneliness before his sudden death last year, said in a 2013 TED Talk. Denying loneliness, he told his audience, is like denying we feel hunger or thirst.