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The Social Brain And The Human Condition

PART I: Experimental Foundations

The plans had been made, details finalized and all expenses paid.  I was to travel to the south coast of England to complete my training for the British Sub-Aqua Club Sports Diver certificate.  I boarded a train from London’s Waterloo station down to the quiet seaside resort of Bournemouth where I was received by relatives.  For the next two weeks I commuted to the nearby harbor town of Poole and headed out on a rigid hull inflatable boat with five other students to complete a series of required dives.  The testosterone-induced camaraderie soon brought us together into a close-knit group.  We were assigned our respective diving ‘buddies’- a practice that is almost a mandatory requirement of amateur sport diving.  We quickly picked up on the diving lingo and were Hi-fiving our way to the end of each day.     

All of our sorties out to sea went according to plan.  That is, until the final afternoon.  As we were heading back to the safety of the mooring station the weather took a turn for the worst.  Surging waves reduced visibility to little more than a few feet and with the quickly darkening skies we knew we were in trouble.  In desperation the pilot of the boat radioed for help.  Minutes later we were spotted by the coastal ‘cavalry guard’- a British Navy Sea King helicopter equipped with all the fittings that one might expect for a major rescue operation.  Fortunately the terrifying experience of being stranded out at sea ended without further incident.  We were escorted to the calmer waters of a local bay from which we headed home for a feast of fried fish served in greasy, vinegar-sodden newspaper (the quintessentially English supper). That same evening we all reconvened to mull over the events as they had unfolded.  We bonded socially knowing that, in the midst of our differences, there was at least one thread of commonality by which we could all relate to each other.  We were all now sports divers with a story to tell. 

A craving for social connection is a deeply-rooted aspect of the human psyche (1).  So much so that even at the cellular level there are key molecular markers associated with the subjective feeling of social isolation (loneliness).  Just three years ago a seminal study using a microarray based approach identified some of the genes that are differentially expressed in the immune cells of individuals who struggle with subjective social isolation (2).  The ‘transcriptional fingerprint of loneliness’ that came about as a result provided researchers with a window into how negative feelings over social experiences can adversely impact our health.  Most importantly a total of 209 transcripts, representing 144 genes, were found to be differentially expressed in the leukocytes of subjectively lonely individuals (2).

Over-expressed genes included transcription factors and chromatin structure regulators involved in leukocyte proliferation and immune activation while under-expressed genes were predominantly those of cell-cycle inhibitors (2).  A crucial piece of the loneliness puzzle was the discovery of reduced glucocorticoid receptor-mediated transcriptional activity.  Other signaling pathways involving the Oct and CREB/ATF transcription factor families were also significantly affected (2).  From a disease standpoint the results were in close agreement with clinical findings that correlate subjective loneliness with an increased risk of inflammation-mediated disease and decreased resistance to viral infection (2).

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) techniques have supplemented these molecular studies by showing how areas that are active in the brain during moments of physical pain are also active during prolonged periods of social exclusion (3,4).  In one experiment participants were subjected to MRI scanning of brain blood flow while interacting with virtual team mates in a computer ball-throwing game aptly named Cyberball (3,4).  Participants became emotionally distressed whenever they were excluded from activities in the virtual environment (3,4).  Two areas of the brain that register and regulate physical pain- the prefrontal and the anterior cingulate cortex- were shown to play a decisive role in the ensuing emotional distress circuit (3,4).  In close agreement with this study, a recent review by UCLA psychologists Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger made plain how our response to emotional stresses and pleasures relies on the same neurological processes that register negative and positive physical sensations (5). 

Pharmaceutical intervention is gaining traction as one of several possible therapeutic avenues for treating loneliness.  Psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp has suggested that the use of opioids or naturally occurring regulators of separation distress such as oxytocin or prolactin might reverse feelings of social isolation (3).  In their award-winning book Loneliness: Human Nature And The Need For Social Connection cognitive neuroscientist John Cacioppo and former editor of Harvard University Press William Patrick offer a more pro-active method which involves a change in one’s own thought patterns and perceptions (6). Their highly acclaimed EASE way of social connection (E= Extend Yourself, A= Action Plan, S= Selection and E= Expectation) builds on years of research carried out at the Center of Cognitive Science at the University of Chicago (6).  Central to their rationale is the counterintuitive principle that in order to get around the ‘passive coping’ that characterizes the inertia of loneliness, we must make ourselves available to meet the needs of others.  Such an assessment runs against the tide of sentiments that pervade our culture.  But Cacioppo and Patrick are ever-emphatic about what their experience has shown:

 “The most difficult conceptual hurdle for people in the throes of loneliness is that, although they are going through something that feels like a hole in the center of their being- a hunger that needs to be fed- this ‘hunger’ can never be satisfied by a focus on ‘eating’.  What’s required is to step outside the pain of our own situation long enough to ‘feed’ others…We are told in childhood to share and to ‘do unto others’.  It sounds simplistic, like a Sunday school lesson.  It doesn’t sound like behavior that fits into the adult, workaday world.  Certainly it does not sound like advice based on hard science.  And therefore this wisdom, which should be a principle to guide us, we dismiss as a cliché.  As a result, we get caught up in our problems and the confusion of our tortured perceptions and we don’t practice what we know to be wise and true…Real change begins with doing, and what may seem like silly reminders may be exactly what it takes to get us to do what needs to be done, in the moment, every day” (6) 

The ‘integrative intelligence’ that allows us to read social cues is severely impaired whenever loneliness strikes.  The end result is that we build inaccurate impressions of our human interactions- a phenomenon that neuroscientists have termed ‘loss of executive control’ (7).  In such cases, it is the brain’s frontal lobes that incorrectly regulate our judgment of the external world (7).  When my wife and I boarded a flight out of Heathrow airport on the 26th of February, 2001 with only a one-way ticket to the United States we knew that we were taking a risk by ripping ourselves out of a firm bedrock of friends and family to begin life in unfamiliar territory.  And for the first months we felt the negative impact of living outside the social scene.    But by applying the ‘tried and tested’ wisdom of modern psychology we were able to pull ourselves back into a medium within which we could feel comfortable again.  In short, we rediscovered our sense of being human.     

In Part II I will examine the sweeping evolutionary suppositions that often accompany this otherwise-fruitful area of research into the human social condition.     

Literature Cited

  1. Dan Russell (1996) The UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3):  Reliability, validity, and factor structure,  Journal of Personality Assessment, 66, 20-40.
  2. Steve W Cole et al (2007) Social Regulation Of Gene Expression In Human Leukocytes, Genome Biology, 8, R189
  3. Jaak Panksepp (2003) Feeling the Pain Of Social Loss, Science, 302, pp. 237-239
  4. Naomi Eisenberger et al (2007) Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study Of Social Exclusion, Science, 302, pp.290-292
  5. Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger (2009) Pains And Pleasures Of Social Life, Science, 323, pp.890-891
  6. John Cacioppo and William Patrick (2008) Loneliness: Human Nature And The Need For Social Connection, Norton Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 233-243
  7. Ibid, p.35
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