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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: The neuroscience of loneliness

Lynne Baab • Tuesday November 7 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: The neuroscience of loneliness

I want to introduce you to the academic field of social neuroscience, focused on the connections between social experiences and biological functions. Human beings are social creatures, and it makes sense that our relationships would affect us on a neurological level, and also that our neurological functions would affect our relationships.

Here’s the abstract of an article by one of the co-founders of social neuroscience, John T. Cacioppo, and a second researcher. Notice the way they describe loneliness as “perceived social isolation.” That raises a lot of questions about the difference between being alone and feeling lonely, a topic for a future blog post. Meanwhile, take your time reading this abstract. I have added two definitions in square brackets.

“Social species, from Drosophila melanogaster [the common fruit fly] to Homo sapiens, fare poorly when isolated. Homo sapiens, an irrepressibly meaning-making species, are, in normal circumstances, dramatically affected by perceived social isolation. Research indicates that perceived social isolation (i.e. loneliness) is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, increased negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism [the attribution of human characteristics to an animal or object] and contagion that threatens social cohesion. These differences in attention and cognition impact on emotions, decisions, behaviors and interpersonal interactions that can contribute to the association between loneliness and cognitive decline and between loneliness and morbidity more generally.
—John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley, “Perceived social isolation and cognition,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences

According to this and other research, loneliness is a “risk factor for and may contribute to” a whole list worrisome things. This research is scary, especially when you consider all the news items and even government documents talking about an epidemic of loneliness. I want to tease out some of the significant phrases in this abstract that describe these risk factors:

Poorer overall cognitive performance and faster cognitive decline. In the pandemic, we saw this among people in nursing homes who were unable to receive visitors and also in many other people who experienced increased isolation in 2020 and 2021. Quite apart from the pandemic, I often see this in seniors whose friends have died or moved away.

Poorer executive functioning. This has profound implications for each of us when we experience loneliness. We need our executive function in order to take initiative to connect with people — to call a friend from high school, make a date to meet a relative for coffee, take brownies to our neighbor, get going on Sunday morning to go to church, or plan an early dinner on Tuesday evening to get to the book group. Sadly, according to this research, loneliness makes us less likely to take actions that will relieve loneliness, a negative spiral.

Increased negativity and depressive cognition. Here’s another component of the negative spiral of loneliness. When we feel negative and depressed, it’s hard to take initiative, and it’s also hard to enjoy being with people.

Heightened sensitivity to social threats. This seems to relate to the people who do mass shootings. On a much smaller scale, I can hear this in everyday conversations, when people express their frustration with co-workers, neighbors, and family members who they believe are against them in some way.

A confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating. I can’t access the whole article because it’s behind a paywall. I wish I could read exactly what these words refer to. I do hear a form of self-defeating confirmatory bias in others and myself when we beat ourselves up for being lonely, as if it is always our own fault for being unlikable. This contributes to the negative spiral of loneliness. I have mentioned this in two recent blog posts: here and here.

Perhaps as you’re reading this post, you are feeling discouraged like I felt when I read that abstract. I see and know of too many lonely people, and I hate the thought that their loneliness is damaging them on a cellular level. I want to let this kind of research inform my prayers rather than send me into despair. I want to begin by shifting my focus to the beautiful truth that God is the creator of every neuron in our bodies. God is the healer of every kind of damage to those neurons. God can meet us and those we love in our loneliness and help us build new neural pathways that will help us grow in feeling connected with others. 

Right now, as I write this post, I am pausing to take some deep breaths. I am turning to God in thankfulness for the complexity of our bodies and for the recent research showing that we can build new neural pathways at any stage of life. I am praising God as the creator, sustainer, and healer of our neurons.

This research can be fuel for prayer in many other areas as well. We can pray for the Holy Spirit’s power for ourselves and for others to step outside the spiral of loneliness. We can pray that we, and those we love, would feel so beloved by God that we will want to show love even when we feel lonely. We can pray that we, and those we love, would not hold grudges. We can pray that we would grow in embracing solitude as a way to experience the companionship of Jesus, while also being willing to take action when feeling lonely.  

Lord of the dance of relationships and love, teach us how to pray for ourselves when we are lonely. And teach us how to pray for those we love who experience loneliness. When we feel lonely, help us step outside the downward spiral of loneliness into the upward call to be with you, Jesus, and walk with you. We are so grateful for your companionship.

Next week: the dance of conversations — when not to listen. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Hawea, New Zealand, in early winter. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a new post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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