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Why Does Being Lonely Hurt So Much?

Which hurts more: a broken arm, or a broken heart?

I have posed this question over the years to thousands of people in interviews, talks, and focus groups, and there always seems to be universal agreement as to the answer. So, what is it about disconnection, rejection, and banishment that hurts so profoundly?

We generally conceive of hunger and thirst as sensations that work much the same way in humans as they do in other animals. But what we don’t all think about, is the source of this similarity. Research over the past half-century has greatly increased our understanding of how the human brain works, and one of the principal discoveries has been that the multiple sections of the human brain operate quite independently. This actually is no surprise: each of us is well aware that our conscious, discursive mind is not what controls our breathing, heartbeat, digestion-- or scores of other critically important physiological processes that keep us alive. These involuntary functions are handled by sections of our brain that are completely separate and distinct from the frontal lobe-- which is what most of us conceive of as “the brain” because it is the seat of our cognitive functions and the source of our voluntary movements.

With this in mind, I ask you to think of “loneliness” as simply the name we give to the sensation that comes upon us when we feel inadequately connected to others-- when we sense the absence of relationships that make us feel adequately safe, nurtured and soothed. Think about another, more readily conceived sensation: hunger. It makes itself known to both humans and other mammals when low blood sugar triggers the parietal lobe of the brain to signal that it’s time to go locate food. Thirst, fear—and loneliness—work in just the same way. So, the parietal lobe of our brain causes us to feel hungry or thirsty or afraid -- before we employ the language-based functioning of our frontal lobe to figure out how to react to these alerts.

In this model, it is clear why so much pain is involved: pain is part of what motivates animals—including us—to locate food, water, and safety when we sense hunger, thirst, or fear. And because we humans are family-based, small pod, social mammals—like whales, porpoises, dolphins, elephants, camelids, certain members of the horse family, and some of the great apes-- we share an extraordinary refinement on the basic mammalian strategy of amorphous herding for safety-in-numbers. Namely, we social mammals have developed both the motivation and the capacity to form and maintain special connections with particular others. We see this in whales: they form friendships, called “bonding partnerships” by those who study them, [1] and so do chimpanzees [2] and elephants [3].

Of course, modern humans, with our linguistic capacities, go much farther, much deeper in our special relationships-- even if we still experience part of the impulse to connect with others from our parietal lobe. Clearly, we are looking for more—far more—than just safety in numbers. We are searching for fulfillment, for mutual respect, and for shared joy. In a word, we are looking for love. How did we become different in this way from the other social mammals? Recent research has shown that one major factor is the massive amount of parental cuddling, nurturing, and soothing that well-functioning human parents bestow on their offspring over their extended childhoods. This loving touch imprints neurobiological conduits—pathways of connection-- in children’s frontal lobes. Subsequently, these neurological linkages both equip and motivate the child to initiate and maintain their own rewarding, enduring special relationships as they gradually move out from their birth home. In other words, while our fellow animals train their young in mobility and sustainability skills, human parents do much more: we also train our young to find their calm, joy, and energy in being accepted by and resonating with those they select to be their friends and their mates.

So, when we are lonely—when we feel distant from those we care about, or shunned or banished by our community, or discarded by someone we love—of course we hurt so terribly much, and for so terribly long. This is because both partsof our consciousness—both our animal brain and our human brain-- are crying out to us to take note of the dangers of disconnection and of the need to seek reconnection with those we know, and new connections with those we meet. And the language in which both parts of our brain call out to us, is the language of pain.

All of this pain is why people commit suicide or compose great opera over broken hearts. Broken arms? Not so much.

References

[1] Remy Melina. “Female Whales Forge Long-Lasting Friendships.” How It Works Magazine (June 8, 2010)

[2] Ben Garrod. “Chimp Study Shows How Hanging Out With Friends Makes Life Less Stressful.” The Conversation (November 1, 2016); https//theconersation.com/chimp-study-shows-how-hanging-our-with-friends-makes-life-less-stressful-68000

[3] Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell. “How Male Elephants Bond.” Smithsonian Magazine (November, 2010)

1] Remy Melina. “Female Whales Forge Long-Lasting Friendships.” How It Works Magazine (June 8, 2010)

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