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One is the loneliest number.
Hey everyone, Crystal here for DNews.
I don't care how much Netflix and ice cream you consume,
being alone for long periods of time just sucks!
It makes us sad, eats away at our self-esteem and our immune system, makes us more susceptible to chronic diseases, and it might even shorten our lifespan.
But could loneliness actually be a good thing?
Loneliness is the emotional state that arises from perceived isolation.
Like hunger, thirst, and pain, loneliness is an "aversive cue," a negative feeling that we want to move away from.
Think of it as an evolutionary mechanism that says, "Hey, you're in danger and your friends could help you."
Humans evolved to be social animals; groups provide protection and shared resources that help us survive.
When it comes to gathering food, building shelters, and defending themselves, communities of humans have a much better chance of survival than individuals do.
And so, scientists say, we evolved a "need to belong."
In fact, loneliness may have been so important for survival that we evolved a unique set of neurons in our brains dedicated to it.
In a paper recently published in the journal, Cell, neuroscientists at MIT identified a region of the mouse brain that is uniquely responsive to isolation.
The researchers used a technique called optogenetics, in which light is used to activate or inhibit selected groups of neurons in a modified rodent brain,
to manipulate a cluster of dopamine-sensitive neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus, which is a region of the mouse's brain that's been associated with depression.
For now, we'll call this special set of cells "loneliness neurons."
In this study, researchers introduced a lonely experimental mouse to a new mouse friend, and observed a significant increase in activity of the "loneliness neurons."
Then, they gave the mouse a choice between spending time alone or with another mouse, and studied how optogenetic stimulation of the "loneliness neurons" influenced the mouse's choice.
Activation of those neurons caused the mouse to spend significantly more time with a mousy companion, indicating that when those neurons fire, mice seek out social interaction.
But was the mouse's choice motivated by positive reward or a negative experience?
To determine this, scientists let mice roam around in a box that contained two areas.
When the mouse spent time in one area, its "loneliness neurons" were stimulated, and while in the other area, they were not.
Interestingly, the mice avoided the stimulating area, indicating that the activation didn't make them feel very good.
This observation led researchers to suggest that activity in this brain region might be connected to a loneliness-like state that motivates mice to seek out social contact to feel better.
These findings reinforce the evolutionary view that loneliness is actually a good thing.
Because it encourages us to seek social contact and, in turn, keeps us healthier and safer.
Even just in this study, there's so much more to the story, and if the research is extrapolated to humans,
it could not only help to explain motivations behind our own feelings and behavior, but also help us study what happens when those things go awry.
But before we all get too excited, the neuroscientist in me must extend a note of caution:
It's important to remember that human brains and mouse brains are similar in some ways, but not the same.
And mice do not display identical social behaviors to humans.
But for now, since we can't manipulate human brains the way we do with mice, we have to make do with what we learn from rodents,
and hope that somebody gave those lonely mice a hug and some tiny ice cream,
and told them that they're terrific and it's going to be okay,
and somebody will love you for who you are, and you will never be lonely again…
Sorry.
If I haven't managed to convince you to stop staring at this screen and seek some social contact,
check out this video by Laci on how loneliness can kill you.
More people are living alone now, people are working longer and longer hours, they're working remotely, they're traveling far and wide for jobs...
People are using social media more to connect, and folks argue back and forth, is it good, is it bad,
is it bringing us together, tearing us apart... and everyone has different experience. Personally, I found it's good and bad.
What about you? How do you deal with loneliness? Subscribe to DNews and let us know in the comments down below. See you next time!
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Why Being Lonely Is Crucial For Survival

92960 Folder Collection
Vivi Lee published on June 20, 2017    Vivi Lee translated    Mandy Lin reviewed
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