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6 Illustrations to Understand Loneliness Better

Six illustrations from a connection expert highlight the basics of loneliness.

Key points

  • Neuroscientists discovered loneliness neurons in the brain in 2012 by accident.
  • The same thing that drives humans to eat and drink is similar to what drives us to connect and converse.
  • Measuring loneliness in the brain objectively could be the start to better understanding the role loneliness plays in other illnesses.
iStock / nadia_bormotova
Source: iStock / nadia_bormotova

“I administered cocaine and ended up discovering the source of loneliness.”

Said two MIT neuroscientists, Kay Tye, and Gillian Matthews. By accident, in 2012, Matthews and Tye stumbled across the brain's loneliness neurons while studying how cocaine changes the brain in mice.* They discovered that the same thing that drives humans to eat and drink is similar to what drives us to connect and converse. Acute isolation causes social craving, similar to the way fasting causes hunger.

Researchers have proved our brains have a biological makeup that drives our desire to be one with the pack. Loneliness isn’t just a social phenomenon but a biological requirement.

While loneliness is a universal and common condition, the science of loneliness is very new. Due to the subjective nature of loneliness and difficulty quantifying it, neuroscientists have long avoided studying it. This makes these recent findings truly groundbreaking.

Measuring loneliness in the brain objectively could be the start to better understanding the role loneliness plays in other illnesses such as depression, mental health, addiction, and social anxiety.

In the spirit of helping us better understand loneliness, here are a few original illustrations from my recent book on loneliness, Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All-In (McGraw-Hill 2022).

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill
Source: Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill

Only the inhuman are immune. Is loneliness normal? You decide.

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill
Source: Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill

The perpetual and unfortunate cycle of loneliness. As a social species, humans require more than the mere presence of others. We require the presence of others to dream, strategize, and work toward common goals. We need to be in the presence of others who value, appreciate, and “see” us for everything we are. Loneliness is being seen through; connection is being seen as.

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill
Source: Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill

The unhealthy transition from exclusion to alienation. Loneliness tends to cause individuals to turn inward and retreat, making it less likely others will help. Connect with someone today that you suspect might be wrestling with loneliness.

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill
Source: Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill

The unsuspecting spread of loneliness. People shouldn’t treat loneliness as a private or one-off problem that needs to be addressed individually but rather as a major community and organizational threat that potentially can infect an entire group. Since loneliness causes individuals to turn inward, it's imperative for others to pull others into the group proactively. A community or team is only as unified as its loneliest member.

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill
Source: Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill

While loneliness abounds, there is good news. In the same way, loneliness is contagious, and so are kindness and prosocial behaviors. In fact, people on the receiving end of prosocial behavior are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors themselves by a whopping 278 percent. Prioritizing social connections is a no-brainer. Less lonely people equates to healthier individuals, teams, and communities.

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill
Source: Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen / McGraw Hill

Together we accomplish more. The same is true for humans.

Loneliness isn’t shameful, it’s a signal. It’s universal yet unique. It’s not just despairing, it’s a motivational force—a force that reminds us we are stronger, healthier, and better together.

References

Singer, “New Evidence for the Necessity of Loneliness.”

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen (2022). Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All In. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Education.

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