Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • When you look out onto the world,

  • it certainly appears the Earth is flat.

  • The ground beneath you is stable and unmoving,

  • and stars and sun circle the Earth.

  • Hundreds of years ago,

  • elaborate theories were developed based on these common sense observations

  • to explain and predict the reach of the oceans

  • and the movement of celestial bodies.

  • When science demonstrated that these common sense observations were illusions,

  • and depicted the Earth and the Universe in a completely different way,

  • people slowly came to accept that the world was not as it seemed.

  • Scientific measurements and sophisticated calculations

  • have repeatedly demonstrated that

  • what we think is intuitive, obvious and common sense

  • cannot be trusted to be true.

  • For that reason, modern science is based on the denial of common sense

  • until apparently it comes to ourselves:

  • when science confirms a particular way of thinking about our mind and behaviour,

  • or depicts it in an unusual and a new way,

  • we tend to be skeptical that such a science is worthwhile

  • even if possible.

  • And instead, we fall back on intuition, prior beliefs, and yes, common sense.

  • For instance, if I told you,

  • scientific research's demonstrated that opposites attract,

  • wouldn't you tell me that we don't need a science to tell us something we already know?

  • But what if I told you that birds of a feather flock together according to scientific research,

  • wouldn't you say, we don't need a science to tell us something we already know?

  • Or you may have realised already,

  • of course, that these both may be self-evident truths,

  • but they can't both be true

  • since they are internally inconsistent.

  • The science of mind and behaviour is full of such examples:

  • self-evident truths that both can't be true.

  • We know, for instance,

  • that two heads are better than one

  • and we know that too many cooks spoil the broth.

  • The next time you hear a science report of some obvious result,

  • remember that the obvious result was equally obvious,

  • but it'd just been proven to be wrong.

  • It's obvious there we're rugged individualists.

  • True, true, true!

  • We're born to the most prolonged period of dependency,

  • but in our transition to adulthood, we achieve autonomy, independence,

  • to become kings of the mountain,

  • captains of our universe.

  • It's easily (easy) to think about our brain,

  • how's deep within a cranial vault, separated, isolated, protected from others,

  • when we look out onto the social world

  • other individuals certainly look distinct, independent, self vicinities

  • with no forces binding them together.

  • No wonder that we forget

  • that we are members of a social species,

  • born dependent on our parents, for our species to survive,

  • these infants must instantly engage their parents in protective behaviour

  • and the parents must care enough about these offspring to nurture and protect them.

  • Even once grown, we are not particularly splendid specimens.

  • Other animals can run faster

  • see and smell better,

  • and fight much more effectively than we can.

  • Our evolutionary advantage

  • is our brain and our ability to communicate, plan and reason and work together.

  • Our survival depends on our collective abilities,

  • not on our individual mind.

  • We are connected across our lifespan to one another,

  • through a myriad of invisible forces,

  • they're, like gravity, are ubiquitous and powerful.

  • After all, social species, by definition, create a merging structures

  • that extend beyond an organism,

  • structures that range from couples and families

  • to schools and nations and cultures.

  • These structures evolved hand in hand with neural, hormonal and genetic mechanisms to support them

  • because the consequent social behaviour

  • helps these organisms survive,

  • reproduce and leave a genetic legacy.

  • To grow to an adulthood for a social species, including humans,

  • is not to become autonomous and solitary,

  • it's to become the one on whom others can depend.

  • Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology

  • have been shaped to favour this outcome.

  • The evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson,

  • notes that if you ask people:

  • "What are the traits of a good person?",

  • you'll hear traits such as kind, generous, compassionate and empathic.

  • If you ask people what are the traits of an evil person,

  • you'll hear traits such as

  • cruel, greedy, exploitative and selfish.

  • Said differently, the traits of a good person

  • depict someone who cares about themselves and others,

  • and an evil person cares about themselves

  • at the expense of others.

  • Across our biological heritage,

  • our brain and biology have been sculpted to incline us

  • to certain ways of feeling, thinking and behaving.

  • For instance,

  • we have a number of biological machineries

  • that capitalise on aversive signals to motivate us to act

  • in ways that are essential for our survival.

  • Hunger, for instance, is triggered by low blood sugar

  • and motivates you to eat,

  • an important early warning system for an organism

  • that'd require much more time and effort to find food

  • than going to the refrigerator door, kitchen cabinet

  • or fast food restaurants.

  • Thirst is an aversive signal,

  • that motivates us to search for drinkable water

  • prior to falling victim to dehydration.

  • And pain is an aversive system that notifies us of potential tissue damage

  • and motivates us to take care of our physical body.

  • You might think that the biological warning machinery stops there

  • but there's more.

  • Although not common sense, although not intuitive,

  • the pain and aversiveness of loneliness,

  • of feeling isolated from those around you,

  • is also a part of biological early warning machinery

  • to alert you to threats and damage to your social body,

  • which you also need to survive and prosper.

  • Just about all of us have felt physical pain

  • and nearly all of us have felt

  • the heartbreak of home sickness,

  • the agony of bereavement,

  • the torment of unrequited love

  • and the pain of being shunt.

  • All of these are variations on the experience of loneliness.

  • When I started to study the effects of loneliness

  • and brain and biology a couple of decades ago,

  • loneliness has been characterized as a non-chronic disease

  • without redeeming features.

  • It was even equated with shyness and depression

  • with being a loner, a person with marginal social skills.

  • Scientific measurements and sophisticated calculations,

  • to our surprise, revealed that these were myths.

  • Science and common sense had again produced

  • two very different depictions of a phenomenon.

  • And yet if you look at the way we are increasingly living our lives,

  • it shows the extent to which we still buy into

  • those myths of loneliness and values of autonomy and independence.

  • For instance, if you look at

  • the percentage of one-person households in 1940 across the United States

  • it was largely less than 15% of the households by state.

  • Fast-forward to 1970,

  • and it's grown to be between 15 and 20%.

  • Fastforward to 2000

  • and it now exceeds 25% in most states in America.

  • And that light blue state, Utah

  • in 2010 census has gone darker blue.

  • The prevalence of loneliness is also on the rise.

  • In the 1980s, scholars have estimated that about 20% of Americans

  • felt lonelier than at any given point of time.

  • Two recent nationally representative surveys indicate

  • that this number has doubled,

  • but you don't hear people talking about feeling lonely,

  • and that's because loneliness is stigmatised.

  • The psychological equivalent to being a loser in life or a weak person.

  • And this is truly unfortunate,

  • because it means we are more likely to deny feeling lonely,

  • which makes no more sense than denying we feel hunger, thirst or pain.

  • For living with loneliness we now know is the major risk factor

  • for broad-based morbidity and mortality.

  • Consider a couple of the conditions we know about premature death.

  • Living with air pollution increases your odds of an early death by 5%,

  • Living with obesity, we know, a national health problem,

  • increases your odds of an early death by 20%.

  • Excessive alcohol consumption: 30%.

  • A recent med analysis of around a hundred thousand participants

  • shows that living with loneliness increases your odds

  • of an early death by 45%.

  • We're not the only social species and the experimental investigation

  • of non-human social animals who were isolated shows

  • they too suffer deleterious physiological consequences

  • and an abbreviated lifespan.

  • Across our history, as a species, we have survived and prospered

  • by banding together,

  • couples, families and tribes, for mutual protection and assistance.

  • We think of loneliness as a sad condition,

  • but for social species, being on the social perimeters,

  • not only sad, it is dangerous.

  • The brains of social species including our own have evolved

  • to respond to being on the social perimeter

  • by going into a self-preservation mode.

  • If you isolate a rodent and then put it in an open field

  • such as these dots in the bottom of the image,

  • it engages into what's called predator revision,

  • it walks around the outside and doesn't venture into the middle

  • where escape from a flying predator would be more more difficult.

  • When humans feel isolated,

  • they're too, and not only in an unhappy circumstance,

  • but in a dangerous circumstance.

  • Their brains too snap into a self-preservation mode.

  • In a brain-imaging study that we conducted,

  • we showed people negative images

  • that had nothing to do with other people

  • or negative social images,

  • while they were sitting in a scanner and we were scanning.

  • What we found was

  • the lonelier the brain,

  • when a negative social image was presented,

  • that is in a person's environment,

  • when something negative socially happened,

  • the brain allocated more attention,

  • greater visual cortical activity depicted in yellow here, to that image.

  • Now, as you follow that image forward,

  • you come to those two blue areas:

  • that's a temporoparietal junction.

  • This is a piece of brain tissue that's involved in theory of mind,

  • in mind reading and mentalizing,

  • in taking another person's perspective and empathy.

  • It's responsible for the attentional control required to step out of your head

  • and put yourself, at least figuratively, inside the head of someone else

  • so you can take their point of view.

  • The lonelier the brain,

  • when something negative in the social context was depicted,

  • the less the activation in this region.

  • It's dangerous on the social perimeter.

  • When something happens negative in the social environment,

  • that brain is focused on self-preservation,

  • not a concern of the other person.

  • The similarity in neural and behavioral effects across phylogeny

  • is a testimony to the importance of the social environment for social species.

  • And these deep evolutionary roots tilting our brain and biology

  • towards our self-preservation

  • also suggest that much of what's triggered by social isolation is non-conscious.

  • For instance, when you feel isolated

  • you feel this motive, this desire, this intention

  • to connect with other people again.

  • What you don't feel,

  • is that your brain has gone into a hypervigilance for social threats

  • and this hypervigilance means you introduce

  • intentional, confirmatory and even memory biases in terms of those social interactions.

  • And if you're looking for dangers,

  • you more like to see dangers

  • whether they exist or not,

  • meaning that you more likely

  • to have negative interactions.

  • And that threat surveillance of always looking for the next foe

  • activates neuro-biological mechanisms

  • that can degrade your health and lead to early mortality.

  • Loneliness increases defensiveness

  • because you're focused on your own welfare

  • rather than taking the position or perspective of people with whom you interact.

  • Loneliness increases depressive symptoms

  • which has the odd effect of decreasing your likelihood

  • of having social conflict

  • and through the acoustic and postural

  • and facial expressions of sadness,

  • such as this child in this picture serves as a signal

  • to others in the vicinity to reconnect with you,