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What Makes You Say You’re Lonely?

Loneliness, what it means, what it means for us, the brain, and its history

Infrogmation Wikimedia Commons
Scanned by Infrogmation, from 1926 "Art and Beauty Magazine".
Source: Infrogmation Wikimedia Commons

About ten months after my mother’s death from vascular dementia, my 80-year-old father told me “I’m lonely”. He said this despite living in the thick of a busy household. A patient, Stoical, and sociable man, he made this pronouncement at the dinner table. He lived with us.

It seemed to me then that my father couldn’t have been lonely, not in a house with two other adults, two small children, a boisterous dog, three cats, and his occupying an active role in helping to look after the children. And I don’t believe that he was.

That was twenty-four years ago. I’ve often wondered since why he said what he did. Not for a single moment do I believe that he literally meant that he was lonely. Think about what loneliness means. The Oxford English Dictionary reckons loneliness is “sadness because one has no friends or company” or “being without companions”. His circumstances matched neither of those.

I am quite sure that what my father was really trying to say was that he was still grieving for my mother. He was grieving and he wasn’t sure of what he felt, other than that he felt bad, that he felt some pain, and that he still hadn’t got used to her not being there. Maybe he meant to say “I’m lonely for your mother”. That’s not quite loneliness. It means he missed her. He did that.

There were other factors. My father probably felt relieved by the unexpected drama that claiming loneliness implied and by the sympathy it grabbed for him. Perhaps he was even a little clinically depressed after the death of his wife. Grieving and depression seem to mimic one another. It’s even possible that he was, at that dinner table, trying to express mild nostalgia for a happy time that had irrevocably passed. I’m not suggesting that loneliness should be understand as a symptom of what my father was actually feeling. I’m suggesting that he was feeling something else entirely. And we’ll never know what this was. Words failed him. It’s a common problem.

Language is a terrible mechanism for the expression of any strong emotion. You’re in pain and you’re looking helplessly for a dramatic descriptor. You’re looking for something that will get you the attention you need and that will say how you feel. Grieving, mourning, sad, miserable, depressed, melancholy, unhappy – or lonely. What’s the difference? Emotion precedes language. You don’t need words to be able to feel lonely. Language is the hopeless tool we use to catch confusing experience. It’s seldom an accurate guide to the nature of an individual’s emotional state. You’d do better to follow the tone of voice and watch the cast of the face. Ideally circumstances would define the emotion.

My father was not alone with his dysglossia. I saw it again last year, but this time it related to surveys. In July 2014 it was reported from the UK that the Office for National Statistics had designated Britain as the “loneliness capital of Europe”. People in the UK were “less likely to have strong friendships or know [their] neighbors than residents anywhere else in the EU”, explained The Telegraph. And a high proportion of people, claimed the report, “have no one to rely on in a crisis”.

Matters can change dramatically in one year is all that I can think. In 2013, in its Wellbeing indices, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed the UK 3rd in satisfaction related to “social connections” of the 34 countries surveyed. Either the rest of the OECD is an especially miserable place (which is not the case, as a good number of the OECD members are also member states of the EU) and the UK ranking means little, or there is a pretty drastic disconnect between how people will react when they are asked about “social connections” and how they will react when they are asked about feeling “lonely”.

I am afraid that my conclusion here would be to say that most people have not a clue as to how they feel. It’s no good asking them if they are lonely. Nor is their much value in asking them about any of the other synonyms for loneliness to be found, for example, in the UCLA Loneliness Scale (whether there are people they can “turn to”, “talk to”, who “understand [them]”, whether they feel “isolated”, “alone”, “left out”…). The response will depend on who asks, and when, and why. The “perception of social isolation” may swing with the wind, or with the survey.

How do you know if a person is lonely? One of the most invigorating discussions of this topic that I have encountered appeared late in 2014. The masterly and pellucid article was “Toward a neurology of loneliness” and the authors are Stephanie Cacioppo, John P. Capitanio, and John T. Cacioppo. John Cacioppo (Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, and Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago) in company with William Patrick, is the author of one of the best books there is on the nature of the emotions, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2008).

The most exciting part of this meta-study was the survey of the effects of loneliness on animals. We’re on safe ground here, for analysis is based, not on language, but simply though on you can see. The animals were subject to “objective isolation”, such as social marginalization or being cut off from their group. Cacioppo and her team demonstrate that “animal studies of social isolation indicate low neurogenesis, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and nerve growth factor (NGF) in hippocampus; low glucocorticoid receptor (GR) expression and 5alpha RI mRNS, and high corticosterone levels in the prefrontal cortex; low cAMP response element binding protein (CREB) in the ventral striatum; large size of the primary visual cortex, and low NGF and weight of the visual cortex; and low cell proliferation in the amygdala.” The brains of these our unfortunate fellow creatures were deleteriously affected by “objective” social isolation.

What does all of that tell us about human beings? Cacioppo and her team are cautious: “Our goal here is not so much to provide a definitive answer to the question of how (perceived) social isolation affects morbidity and mortality in humans but to determine whether the animal literature may have something to contribute to the answer.” And so of course they must be cautious for the model of loneliness in humans (based on perceived social isolation it is a loneliness that can be expressed in words) utilizes a different definition to that in animals (whose loneliness is objective social isolation and it can be registered using the eyes). We are back to the problem of my father’s faulty self-diagnosis. But who would not hope that Stephanie Cacioppo, John P. Capitanio, and John T. Cacioppo are close to truth?

Self-diagnosis (even when disguised by such innocuous but leading questions as “How often do you feel that you are "in tune" with the people around you?” [the UCLA Loneliness Scale Q.1]) is a frail tool. This is where the history of emotion comes into this post. The ancient Greeks and Romans speak very little of loneliness. But they must have experienced it – the Darwinian aversive advantages of the emotion are such that it must be present - and indeed be something to be avoided - in every animal or human society. Why then doesn’t Homer’s Odysseus in Ortygia or Sophocles Philoctetes on Lemnos complain about objective isolation and what we perceive to be their loneliness, their perceived social isolation? I am sure that they experienced it. But their language and their culture lack clear terms for the emotion. And anyhow these people were more interested in visible somatic illustrations of psychological conditions than they were in internal ones. The ancient Greeks and Romans wanted to be able to see emotional states, not to hear about them. For the word “loneliness” David Konstan, the polymath prof from NYU and Brown University, points out “there is no corresponding term in classical Greek”. That’s in his The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks (2007).

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