How loneliness changes the way our brains process the world

We all experience loneliness at some point in life. But is loneliness just a natural part of being human? Why does the world seem different when we feel alone?

Recent research sheds light on these questions, revealing that loneliness can alter how we perceive and think.

Though nobody likes feeling lonely, scientists suggest it’s a feeling that evolved in humans for a good reason.

Social connections are vital, offering safety, resources, chances to start families and more. The unpleasantness of loneliness often drives us to reconnect with others, bringing these benefits.

However, it’s not straightforward. Loneliness can lead to withdrawing socially and negative thoughts, making it challenging to connect with people.

The lonely brain

Research has pinpointed differences in the brains of lonely individuals. In young adults experiencing loneliness, brain areas connected to social understanding and empathy have less dense white matter, which is like a network of nerves enabling communication between different brain regions. In lonely older adults, brain regions linked to cognitive functions and emotional control are actually smaller.

A recent study delved into how lonely brains process the world differently. Participants watched video clips in an fMRI scanner, and non-lonely people displayed similar neural activity.

In contrast, lonely individuals had distinctive brain activity not only from the non-lonely but also among themselves. It suggests that lonely people perceive the world in a unique way.

Finding friends in fiction

The impact of loneliness is also noticeable in how lonely individuals perceive fictional characters. Researchers in the US conducted brain scans on Game of Thrones fans and had them decide if various adjectives described characters from the show.

This study revealed that the brains of non-lonely people differentiated between real and fictional characters clearly. However, for lonelier individuals, the line between these two categories became more blurred. This suggests that loneliness might lead to thinking about fictional characters in a way similar to real-world friends.

The study design makes it unclear whether loneliness causes this thinking pattern or if thinking this way about fictional characters leads to loneliness. There’s also the possibility that a third factor influences both outcomes.

Another recent study from Scotland delved into how loneliness can affect cognition when it comes to inanimate objects. Participants were shown products with patterns resembling faces and asked to provide ratings on their eagerness to explore the product and their likelihood of buying it.

The results indicated that lonelier participants were more inclined to pay attention to and engage with products showing “happy” patterns, as well as consider purchasing them. These findings further suggest that loneliness is linked to a desire for connection, even if it’s with inanimate objects.

These studies collectively imply that loneliness is not just about the perceived absence of human connections but also a yearning for social bonds.

Read more on: What if We Could Live for a Million Years?

Loneliness can drive our brains to seek connections, whether with fictional characters or even inanimate objects, especially when we feel that human interactions are lacking.

A Bias Toward Rejection

When neuroscientists from Germany and Israel embarked on studying loneliness, they anticipated finding similarities with social anxiety in terms of brain activity, particularly involving the amygdala—the brain’s fear center.

Social anxiety tends to activate the amygdala in response to threatening social situations. However, their 2022 study surprised them.

It revealed that, unlike people with social anxiety, lonely individuals didn’t show heightened amygdala activity in response to threatening social situations. Additionally, lonely individuals didn’t exhibit diminished activity in the brain’s reward sections, which is typical in people with social anxiety.

Jana Lieberz, a researcher at the University of Bonn, noted, “The core features of social anxiety were not evident in loneliness.” This indicates that addressing loneliness by simply encouraging social interaction may not effectively treat the root cause.

A recent meta-analysis confirmed that enhancing access to potential friends for lonely individuals did not significantly reduce their subjective loneliness.

Jana Lieberz, a researcher at the University of Bonn, was part of an international team that looked at the neural underpinnings of loneliness. To their surprise, she said, “the core features of social anxiety were not evident in loneliness.”

Loneliness appears to shape our thought processes, influencing them negatively. Behavioral studies revealed that lonely individuals quickly detected negative social cues, such as images of rejection, in just 120 milliseconds—twice as fast as those with fulfilling relationships and in less than half the time it takes to blink. Lonelier individuals also tended to maintain greater distance from strangers, trust others less, and dislike physical touch.

This biased thinking can lead to a downward spiral in the emotional well-being of lonely individuals, as explained by Danilo Bzdok, an interdisciplinary researcher at McGill University. Lonely individuals often interpret received information, such as facial expressions or texts, with a negative perspective, further deepening their sense of loneliness.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q1: Why do humans experience loneliness, and what purpose does it serve?

A: Loneliness is thought to have evolved as a feeling that drives humans to reconnect with others for safety, resources, and social bonding. The unpleasantness of loneliness encourages social interaction.

Q2: How does loneliness affect the brain?

A: Loneliness has been associated with differences in brain structures and neural activity. Lonelier individuals may have less dense white matter in brain areas related to social understanding and empathy. They may also perceive the world differently, with unique brain activity patterns.

Q3: Can loneliness influence how people perceive fictional characters and inanimate objects?

A: Yes, research suggests that loneliness can affect how people perceive fictional characters and inanimate objects. Lonely individuals may blur the line between real and fictional characters and show a preference for products with “happy” patterns, indicative of a desire for connection.

Q4: Is there a connection between loneliness and social anxiety in terms of brain activity?

A: While social anxiety tends to activate the amygdala in response to threatening social situations, research shows that lonely individuals exhibit different brain activity patterns. Loneliness doesn’t show the same core features as social anxiety and may shape thought processes differently.


Loneliness is a complex emotion with deep-rooted evolutionary reasons. It not only drives humans to seek social connections but also influences brain structures, thought processes, and perceptions.

Understanding how loneliness affects the brain can shed light on its impact on human behavior, from altered perceptions of the world to biased thinking patterns.

Addressing loneliness may require more than just encouraging social interactions, as it can lead to a negative cycle of isolation and loneliness.

This insight into the science of loneliness can inform strategies to combat its effects and improve overall well-being.

Leave a comment