JUDITH SHULEVITZ in a book called The Lethality of Loneliness, maintains that loneliness lies at the heart of nearly all mental illness linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones, yet insists that no patient was too sick not to be healed through trust and intimacy. Loneliness, she claims “is the want of intimacy”.
Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
Psychologists insist that loneliness must be seen as an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition. Loneliness “is not synonymous with being alone, nor does being with others guarantee protection from feelings of loneliness,” writes John Cacioppo, the leading psychologist on the subject.
The lonely get sicker than the non-lonely, because they don’t have people to take care of them; they don’t have social support.
But to me, what’s most momentous about the new biology of loneliness is that it offers concrete proof, obtained through the best empirical means, that the poets and bluesmen and movie directors who for centuries have deplored the ravages of lonesomeness on both body and soul were right all along. As W. H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.”
Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different. Surveys confirm that people who feel discriminated against are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t, even when they don’t fall into the categories above. Women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women). African Americans are lonelier than whites (though single African American women are less lonely than Hispanic and white women). The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.
A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part.
Deprive us of the attention of a loving, reliable parent, and, if nothing happens to make up for that lack, we’ll tend toward loneliness for the rest of our lives. Not only that, but our loneliness will probably make us moody, self-doubting, angry, pessimistic, shy, and hypersensitive to criticism. Recently, it has become clear that some of these problems reflect how our brains are shaped from our first moments of life.
Proof that the early brain is molded by love comes, in part, from another notorious natural experiment: the abandonment of tens of thousands of Romanian orphans born during the regime of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had banned birth control. A great deal has been written about the heartbreaking emotional and educational difficulties of these children, who grew up 20 to a nurse in Dickensian orphanages. In the age of the brain scan, we now know that those institutionalized children’s brains developed less “gray matter”—that is, fewer of the neurons that make up the bulk of the brain—and that, if those children never went on to be adopted, they’d sprout less “white matter,” too. White matter helps send signals from one part of the brain to another; think of it as the mind’s internal Internet. In the orphans’ case, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex—which are involved in memory, emotions, decision-making, and social interaction—just weren’t connecting.
Harlow proved that the absence of mothering destroyed the monkeys’ ability to mingle with other monkeys, though the “cloth mother” could mitigate the worst effects of isolation. Years of monkey therapy were required to integrate them into the troop. Harlow’s insights were not well received. Behaviorists, who reigned in U.S. psychology departments, held a blank-slate view of animal and human behavior. They scoffed at the notion that baby monkeys could be hard-wired for love, or at least for a certain quality of touch.
Times have changed, and Harlow’s conviction that nature demands nurture is now the common view.
This is an edited extract from Judith Shulevitz, the science editor of The New Republic
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