Monday, May 20, 2013

The Lethality of Loneliness

This is one of the best psychology-related magazine articles that I have encountered in a long while. It is well worth reading by anyone interested in the field. The scope is remarkable: from Frieda Fromm-Reichmann to the biology of stress to evolutionary psychology to behavioral genetics to MRI studies to Romanian orphans to Harlow's and Suomi's monkeys.

The article does appear in The New Republic, however, so there is some pointless political partisanship added at the end. Science is one thing and public policy is another. Be aware that the findings collectively presented in this article could just as readily support a policy of parental licensing rather than early pre-school interventions (which, despite what it says in the article, don't work).

Some excerpts (but read the whole article):

"To the degree that loneliness has been treated as a matter of public concern in the past, it has generally been seen as a social problem—the product of an excessively conformist culture or of a breakdown in social norms. Nowadays, though, loneliness is a public health crisis. The standard U.S. questionnaire, the UCLA Loneliness Scale [take it!], asks 20 questions that run variations on the theme of closeness—“How often do you feel close to people?” and so on. As many as 30 percent of Americans don't feel close to people at a given time.


Cole figured that a man who’d hide behind a false identity was probably more sensitive than others to the pain of rejection. His temperament would be more tightly wound, and his stress-response system would be the kind that “fires responses and fires ’em harder.” His heart would beat faster, stress hormones would flood his body, his tissues would swell up, and white blood cells would swarm out to protect him against assault. If this state of inflamed arousal subsided quickly, it would be harmless. But if the man stayed on high alert for years at a time, then his blood pressure would rise, and the part of his immune system that fends off smaller, subtler threats, like viruses, would not do its job.
And he was right. The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly, Cole found, was whether or not he was in the closet. Closeted men infected with HIV died an average of two to three years earlier than out men


[N]atural selection favored people who needed people. Humans are vastly more social than most other mammals, even most primates, and to develop what neuroscientists call our social brain, we had to be good at cooperating. To raise our children, with their slow-maturing cerebral cortexes, we needed help from the tribe. To stoke the fires that cooked the meat that gave us the protein that sustained our calorically greedy gray matter, we had to organize night watches. But compared with our predators, we were small and weak. They came after us with swift strides. We ran in a comparative waddle.

So what would happen if one of us wandered off from her little band, or got kicked out of it because she’d slacked off or been caught stealing? She’d find herself alone on the savanna, a fine treat for a bunch of lions. She’d be exposed to attacks from marauders. If her nervous system went into overdrive at perceiving her isolation, well, that would have just sent her scurrying home. Cacioppo thinks we’re hardwired to find life unpleasant outside the safety of trusted friends and family.


A famous experiment helps explain why rejection makes us flinch. It was conducted more than a decade ago by Naomi Eisenberger, a social psychologist at UCLA, along with her colleagues. People were brought one-by-one into the lab to play a multiplayer online game called “Cyberball” that involved tossing a ball back and forth with two other “people,” who weren’t actually people at all, but a computer program. “They” played nicely with the real person for a while, then proceeded to ignore her, throwing the ball only to each other. Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.
Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls “molecular remodeling.” “One message I take away from this is, ‘Hey, it’s not just early life that counts,’ ” he says. “We have to choose our life well.”"
End excerpts
 Sorry to always be a downer, but there are biological constraints to human resilience. The Romanian orphans who had suffered deprivation for more than two years rarely showed significant recovery from the experience (foster care didn't help). And I don't think that believe people can simply choose to "start believing in a supernatural being."
I do think that it is madness to propose that the proper response to children being raised without fathers is to increase the subsidizing of single motherhood ("universal pre-school" is an example of this). If you subsidize an activity, you will get more of it, not less of it.


1 comment:

  1. Than why do so many "put up a front" so to speak, that they are independent and don't need others?


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