New Research Reveals That Lonely People Process the World Differently

Simple Brain Waves Signals Illustration

New researchers reveals that lonely individuals have distinct and varied brain processing patterns when compared to those who aren’t lonely, which may contribute to their feelings of isolation. Despite their number of friends, individuals with high loneliness levels exhibited these unique brain responses, suggesting that it’s not about the quantity of social connections, but the quality and shared understanding.

A researcher from USC Dornsife in psychology comparing brain images has found significant differences in the brain processing patterns of lonely individuals when compared to those who aren’t lonely.

The Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy may have been onto something when he wrote the opening line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

A recent study published in Psychological Science and led by a scholar now at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, suggests that while individuals who aren’t experiencing loneliness exhibit similar patterns in brain information processing, those who are lonely seem to interpret the world in a manner that is distinctly unique to each individual.

Copious research shows that loneliness is detrimental to well-being and is often accompanied by self-reported feelings of not being understood by others. A recent report from the United States Surgeon General’s office referred to loneliness as a public health crisis in reaction to the growing number of adults suffering from this condition. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.

Loneliness is idiosyncratic

While she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, Elisa Baek, assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife, sought to better understand what contributes to such feelings of disconnection and being misunderstood. Baek and her team used a neuroimaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of 66 first-year college students while they watched a series of video clips. The videos ranged in topic from sentimental music videos to party scenes and sporting events, providing a diverse array of scenarios for analysis.

Before being scanned, the participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 21, were asked to complete the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a survey that measures a person’s subjective feelings of loneliness and feelings of social isolation.

Based on the survey results, the researchers separated the participants into two groups: lonely and “nonlonely” (those not experiencing loneliness). They then scanned each participant’s brain using fMRI as the participant watched the videos.

Comparing the brain imaging data between the two groups, the researchers discovered that lonelier individuals exhibited more dissimilar and idiosyncratic brain processing patterns than their non-lonely counterparts.

This finding is significant because it reveals that neural similarity, which refers to how similar the brain activity patterns of different individuals are, is linked to a shared understanding of the world. This shared understanding is important for establishing social connections. People who suffer from loneliness are not only less similar to society’s norm of processing the world, but each lonely person differs in unique ways, as well. That uniqueness may further impact the feelings of isolation and lacking social connections.

Baek said, “It was surprising to find that lonely people were even less similar to each other.” The fact that they don’t find commonality with lonely or nonlonely people makes achieving social connection even more difficult for them.

“The ‘Anna Karenina principle’ is a fitting description of lonely people, as they experience loneliness in an idiosyncratic way, not in a universally relatable way,” she added.

Loneliness isn’t about having or not having friends

So, does idiosyncratic processing in lonely individuals cause loneliness, or is it a result of loneliness?

The researchers observed that individuals with high levels of loneliness — regardless of how many friends or social connections they had — were more likely to have idiosyncratic brain responses. This raised the possibility that being surrounded by people who see the world differently from oneself may be a risk factor for loneliness, even if one socializes regularly with them.

The study also suggests that because social connections or disconnections fluctuate over time, it may influence the extent to which an individual processes the world idiosyncratically.

Looking forward, Baek said she is interested in examining people who have friends and are socially active but still feel lonely. In addition, the researchers are looking at what particular situations lonely individuals process differently. For example, do lonely people show idiosyncrasies when processing unexpected events or ambiguous social contexts in which things can be interpreted differently?

Reference: “Lonely Individuals Process the World in Idiosyncratic Ways” by Elisa C. Baek, Ryan Hyon, Karina López, Meng Du, Mason A. Porter and Carolyn Parkinson, 7 April 2023, Psychological Science.
DOI: 10.1177/09567976221145316

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.

24 Comments on "New Research Reveals That Lonely People Process the World Differently"

  1. Loneliness people thinks analytically with maturity mind. They will find soule in self and universal. They really thinks about GOD.

  2. The key word here is understanding. Conversation and social interactions are not gonna be meaningful if no one wants to understand each other. We don’t need to agree, but we could understand someone and know where they’re coming from.

    That’s what I think.

  3. Interesting article.I’m 53 living alone since age 18 and never ever feeling lonely. Ilove the freedom –

    • Aaekraatt Singh Axal | September 10, 2023 at 11:04 pm | Reply

      Happiness, Love, cooperation, support with duty and responsibility through an ideal family including themembers of 3 generations utilising the true knowledge of Life.
      Live and let others love.
      Be happy and let others too be happy.

    • I am 47 and am a single mom. The happiest I ever was, is when I lived alone.
      I love the kids, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t mind being alone.

    • Alden Garcia Sr | September 12, 2023 at 3:44 am | Reply

      Well hello there Cindy, Im Alden and Im happy to introduce myself to you here! But I just turned 52 last week and for the most, I have been alone since sometime in March of 1995. I was an only child for the first 13 years of my life then 13 years and 5 days after my birthday was born my sister. So being alone wasn’t new to me come 1995? However, I never would’ve thought to still be alone to this point in my life after all these years? In fact i still have high hope of meeting that one to call my other half or happily ever after before i kick the bucket?? Lord willing ? I mean i hate the thought of being alone and then to have to die alone at that??! No I don’t want that feeling of being alone when it is my time to go?? Anyhow i wanted to say hello because you really do sound so happy and content with being alone and so i wanted to ask what your secret was that you are able to feel so at peace and in love with being alone ? If i may ask maybe you can send me some pointers about it ?? Perhaps? Well ok i do hope to get a response back from you and please feel free to keeping things open to the possibility of you and i becoming really good friend?? Oh as a matter of fact if you would like to look me up on fb? My profile is under “Alden Garcia Sr”, my profile image is of myself of course and im not wearing a shirt and im holding up a peace sign with my fingers and the back ground is a blue color. , so that should do it ? Ok look me up and friend me please? Id think you and i would get along really well??! Ok so ill be checking to see…….

  4. The study did not account for creative individuals who tend to be loners and isolated from the mainstream population. Many of these people seem to embrace their loneliness and make it work for themselves. As a subgroup, artists, musicians, entertainers, scientist, etc. Need to be included in these comparison groups. You have only touched the surface of the issue.also nowhere did I see a definition of loneliness?

  5. Some individuals enjoy being left along and not being around others.
    Like myself

  6. souler-system-resident | September 10, 2023 at 8:37 pm | Reply

    I’ve always thought, you can have friends you hang out with, or you can pursue the truth. Yea, if you have other people you commiserate with, you will tend to assimilate / synchronize with their views. On the other hand, if your goal is to pursue the truth, then you will tend to be ostracized by others who have ‘drunk the cool-aid’ as they say…

  7. I agree with the above statements. I’ve never been lonely. And I’ve rarely felt comfortable with groups. I’m not a follower And as I’m in the last state of life never will. The lifetime of an individual isn’t long enough to think and do everything I conseive. Don’t label anything with preconceived ideas.

  8. Jacqueline Valenzuela

  9. Aaekraatt Singh Axal | September 10, 2023 at 11:06 pm | Reply

    Happiness, Love, cooperation, support with duty and responsibility through an ideal family including themembers of 3 generations utilising the true knowledge of Life.
    Live and let others lve.
    Be happy and let others too be happy.

  10. Anonymous 112233 | September 10, 2023 at 11:26 pm | Reply

    I believe individual has different ways of enjoying life be it alone or be it with other people. Can’t generalise or stereotype people

  11. This is extremely interesting to me. I am 62 years old and lost my husband of over 30 years three years ago. I have never experienced loneliness the way I do since his death. I have a lot of friends, a large family yet i’ve been isolating more and more. I have no desire to do anything social, nor do I have the motivation. I’ve never experienced anything like this before my family doesn’t understand then again how could they? They’re not in my shoes. I feel like an outcast and there are just some days where I just want to run And start over somewhere else. Of course I know bringing me brings the problem with me. I’ve been in grief counseling for quite a while now and well. The counselor is very very good. I don’t seem to be getting much relief. I’m angry all the time, and I was never an angry Person by nature there are days where I feel like this has been a long enough life and I’d rather be in God’s kingdom with my husband, but that is gods decision. I know I have to do some foot work on my end, but it is so difficult I feel like my future is in my past , and it’s a horrible way to live

    • Kelly, Just a few thoughts.A support group for widows may help.As a grieving mother I’ve
      benefited by connecting with others that know my pain. You may develop close friendships within the group. Understand that anger is part of the grief journey.You are not alone.

  12. Please describe or define idiosyncrasies as used in your report.

  13. Kelly, Just a few thoughts.A support group for widows may help.As a grieving mother I’ve
    benefited by connecting with others that know my pain. You may develop close friendships within the group. Understand that anger is part of the grief journey.You are not alone.

  14. I think it may also involve certain people just not wanting to interact. Then there are those who used to have family. We weren’t always like this. I loved the holidays, family gatherings but I have no one now. I get to watch people take for granted a home cooked meal. My last was Thanksgiving. When loneliness is thrust upon you & you never thought you’d be in this position, it’s so hard not to say I’m done. It hurts so much to hear abt people’s daily lives that you used to lead too. Christmas is just another day. I have alot of friends but it’s not the same. You don’t understand why you’re not worthy of that kind of life anymore. Sorry to ramble.FYI, people like me will always tell you their okay. Always, but they aren’t.

    • Exactly my point told by you. I stopped saying I was ok, and now that I have, the whole sh*t up and stay in silence thing has gotten old. I am 45 and I’m looking down the barrel with type 2 diabetes, hate and frustration. Everyone I tried to make a life with was never good enough and “it was always better” for me to be alone. My family every side of it worked against me and would kill my notions to help myself, I raised my two nephews because of my sister and brother in law where always “needing a break”, a brother that felt I owed him something, ran around telling people all over community, he treated poorly, beaten and emotionally distraught. The fact I even stuck with them was because my own mother has a bipolar schizophrenia, and my father is a furious old narcissistic. My grand father saw me for who I was a generally tried to pull me out of my situation he understood my mannerisms and how I developed quickly and worked harder to please every one so that I wouldn’t have to hear the fighting or be punished all the time. My fault is my time, I would get involved in a project, or event and I couldn’t break free until it was done. I always felt awkward in social events and never communicated they way I intended. I didn’t understand that I was some what autistic or ADHD until I was in my 30s. Ridiculed in my own community I would lash out at people and because I hated being submissive to bullies or tired of being the poor kid.

    • It’s those people that say I’m ok that others should pay more attention to. If a person goes into detail about how and why they are having a good day or s***ty day, or in any details about how life is going….then it’s more than likely they are truly ok, even if it’s a bad day.
      Those that simply say I’m ok or I’m good and nothing more are more than likely not truly ok. They just know no one else wants to hear about or cares about how they truly feel, so they give the answer the other person wants to hear.

  15. There’s a difference between being alone, by yourself and being in a crowded place or being surrounded by friends or at least acquaintances and feeling like you’re by yourself because no one understands you. My family stopped doing Thanksgiving Dinner years ago, and none of them has ever invited me to Thanksgiving Dinner. My family still treats me like the uninformed or misinformed teenager or young man I used to be, but that was over 20 to 30 years ago, when I was an idealist in college. I’m over 50 now and am a teacher. It’s strange how my family has helped me financially over the years, but constantly drops the ball by failing to support me emotionally, mentally, and psychologically. I’m a History, English-Language Arts and ESL Teacher. The only people who ever put down my in-person or online teaching is those who have never seen or heard me teaching….

  16. Christian Voigt | September 12, 2023 at 1:58 pm | Reply

    “It was surprising to find that lonely people were even less similar to each other.”

    Is it surprising? If lonely people were all alike, they would all be friends and get along in their own world. There would be two realities of the world. The whole concept is hard to accept.

    So it is one reality, and a lot of abnormal people with a skewed view.
    Or, and this is something just entering my mind, perhaps in the world of social people, they all share the same delusion, and the diverse worlds of the lonely ones are the actual, rough reality. That’s perhaps why loners dont start ideological wars, because there is no ideology for lonely people. That’s a social construct. A need to conform, to fit in, to not be lonely. A bit like religions.
    Good article. Provokes thought.

  17. I’ve felt alone all my life, as far back as I can remember. Even as a child I felt I never fit in and couldn’t make social connections. I drank and done drugs to fit in yet even at parties I felt alone. I often do have a different opinion about the world than other people. I often get strange looks when people ask me which local college football team do I root for and I answer neither one. I couldnt care less about either team or any of them as far as that goes. I don’t like being alone or feeling lonely but over the years and time and time again I’m reassured that people just suck and I don’t like people in general, which often makes me look stuck up and like I think I’m better than every one else when really I don’t feel that way, I just don’t like how people are. The struggle is real. Ain’t life just grand.

  18. For me loneliness is evil thing. In 2007 one of many dark years I wrote this poem. That year I had very little interaction with people at work. Worked 6PM to 2AM and I hated it. I wrote a ton that year. Lonely at work. Home. Not fun. I could never understand people who enjoy being lonely.

    As my Shadow dreams 9/28/07
    My shadow was able to fall asleep after many restless nights. My shadow begins to dream. My shadow sees other
    shadows playing in a beautiful meadow and mountains off in the distance.

    Other shadows introduce themselves to me. I am so afraid not knowing what to say. They gently offer a hand out to my shadow and include me in to their circle. For the 1st time my shadow smiles.

    We play all day in the autumn breeze as the birds sing, the flowers smile, the mountains hug each other and the shadows giggle.

    As we approach the sunset the shadows look in awe at the beauty of the scene. I got my camera out to take a lot of pictures. As the last glimmers of light remain the other shadows “my new friends” start to disappear. I became very frightened. Starting to panic I yell out their names but I hear nothing.

    I found a very dark corner to hide in and begin to cry NO, NO WHERE ARE MY SHADOW FRIENDS?

    Next thing I know I am kicked as I was sleeping in a dark alley and realized I never left the cold, hard city. I begin to cry because for all my life I wanted to have many shadows to become my friend but it was my mind trying to keep me sane.

    Drifting in to the abyss.

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