Your Brain on Loneliness
A deep dive into the neuroscience of loneliness, how social isolation impairs brain function, and what we can do to recover.
Before the young man could realize what he’d done, a tamping rod half his size blasted through his left cheek, exited the top of his skull, and landed a train car’s length away from him.
The year was 1848. The place was a railway construction site in Vermont. The man was Phineas Gage.
What happened next would forever change our understanding of the human brain. Immediately after the explosion, Gage acted like the clean-cut hole in his skull was just a scratch. He walked toward the nearest cart, drove into town, and saw a doctor. And as if this wasn’t enough, he joked about his injury.
“Here,” Gage told the doctor, “is enough business for you,”
Gage recovered miraculously — without speech, motor, or memory impairments. But something had changed. In the aftermath of the injury, the once clever, conscientious, reasonable young man became stubborn, unreliable, and disrespectful. His colleagues later remarked he was “no longer Gage.”
This may seem like an extreme, outdated case. But in today’s age of loneliness, many of us (myself included) have experienced our own versions of the Gage incident. When loneliness impairs our brains, we think less clearly, lose self-control, and empathize less. And while the impact of loneliness on the brain is less destructive than a pointy steel rod, it’s far more sneaky. Either way, the symptoms are the same: we lose part of what makes us human.
When your brain is on loneliness, you’re no longer you.
What Loneliness Does to the Brain
But let’s start at the beginning. Long before loneliness changes our perception of the world and drives us into a negative feedback loop, something far more fundamental happens:
Loneliness inflicts the brain with pain.
This may seem a bit odd. But think about it — what are some of your most painful memories? What I think of aren’t the moments I tore every muscle fiber in my left thigh or snapped my wrist after…