I have found a strange fascination in thinking about itand subsequently in attempting to break through the aloneness of thinking about loneliness by trying to communicate what I believe I have learned. Perhaps my interest began with the young catatonic woman who broke through a period of completely blocked communication and obvious anxiety by responding when I asked her a question about her feeling miserable: She raised her hand with her thumb lifted, the other four fingers bent toward her palm, so that I could see only the thumb, isolated from the four hidden fingers. I interpreted the signal with, "That lonely? At this, her facial expression loosened up as though in great relief and gratitude, and her fingers opened. Then she began to tell me about herself by means of her fingers, and she asked me by gestures to respond in kind. We continued with this finger conversation for one or two weeks, and as we did so, her anxious tension began to decrease and she began to break through her noncommunicative isolation; and subsequently she emerged altogether from her loneliness.
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Even Freud had only touched on it in passing. It might have been the young female catatonic patient who began to communicate only when Fromm-Reichmann asked her how lonely she was. Fromm-Reichmann cured Greenberg, who had been deemed incurable. Among analysts, Fromm-Reichmann, who had come to the United States from Germany to escape Hitler, was known for insisting that no patient was too sick to be healed through trust and intimacy.
She figured that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world. She once chastised her fellow therapists for withdrawing from emotionally unreachable patients rather than risk being contaminated by them.
Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones.
Ariel Lee In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. 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. Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy. They insist that loneliness must be seen as an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition. Not everyone agrees with him, of course. Another school of thought insists that loneliness is a failure of social networks.
Ariel Lee 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. Loneliness varies with age and poses a particular threat to the very old, quickening the rate at which their faculties decline and cutting their lives shorter. But even among the not-so-old, loneliness is pervasive.
A decade earlier, only one out of five said that. With baby-boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10, a day, the number of lonely Americans will surely spike. 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. Ariel Lee A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part.
The nation ignored the crisis for a while, then panicked. Soon, people all over the country were calling for gay men to be quarantined. The disease came from a virus—HIV—that was neutralizing all the usual defenses of a discrete group of people who could be compared with each other and also with a control group of the uninfected.
About half of them tested positive for the virus, and about a third of those agreed to let researchers put their lives under a microscope, answering extensive questions about drug use, sexual behavior, attitudes toward their own homosexuality, levels of emotional support, and so on.
By , around one-third of that group had developed full-blown AIDS, and slightly more than a quarter had died. He learned that the closeted man must police every piece of information known about him, live in constant terror of exposure or blackmail, and impose sharp limits on intimacy, or at least friendship. 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.
When Cole dosed AIDS-infected white blood cells with norepinephrine, a stress hormone, the virus replicated itself three to ten times faster than it did in non-dosed cells. What He wanted is for us not to be alone. Or rather, natural 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. If her nervous system went into overdrive at perceiving her isolation, well, that would have just sent her scurrying home. The researchers then strapped blood- pressure cuffs, biosensors, and beepers onto the students. Nine times a day for seven days, they were beeped and had to fill out questionnaires. He took saliva samples to measure levels of cortisol, a hormone produced under stress.
As expected, he found the students with bodily symptoms of distress poor sleep, high cortisol were not the ones with too few acquaintances, but the ones who were unhappy about not having made close friends. These students also had higher than normal vascular resistance, which is caused by the arteries narrowing as their tissue becomes inflamed. High vascular resistance contributes to high blood pressure; it makes the heart work harder to pump blood and wears out the blood vessels.
If it goes on for a long time, it can morph into heart disease. While Cole discovered that loneliness could hasten death in sick people, Cacioppo showed that it could make well people sick—and through the same method: by putting the body in fight-or-flight mode. 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. She explained that physical harm simultaneously lights up another neural region as well, one whose job is to locate the ache—on an arm or leg, inside the body, and so on.
What the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex registers is the emotional fact that pain is distressing, be it social or physical. In operations performed to relieve chronic pain, doctors have lesioned, or disabled, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. A longitudinal study of more than 8, identical Dutch twins found that, if one twin reported feeling lonely and unloved, the other twin would report the same thing 48 percent of the time. This figure held so steady across the pairs of twins—young or old, male or female, notwithstanding different upbringings—that researchers concluded that it had to reflect genetic, not environmental, influence.
To understand what it means for a personality trait to have 48 percent heritability, consider that the influence of genes on a purely physical trait is percent. Children get the color of their eyes from their parents, and that is that.
But although genes may predispose children toward loneliness, they do not account for everything that makes them grow up lonely. Fifty-two percent of that comes from the world.
Evolutionary theory, which has a story for everything, has a story to illustrate how the human species might benefit from wide variations in temperament. A group that included different personality types would be more likely to survive a radical change in social conditions than a group in which everyone was exactly alike. Imagine that, after years in which a group had lived in peace, an army of strangers suddenly appeared on the horizon.
The tribe in which some men stayed behind while the rest headed off on a month-long hunting expedition the stay-at-homes may have been less adventurous, or they may just have been loners had a better chance of repelling the invaders, or at least of saving the children, than the tribe whose men had all enthusiastically wandered off, confident that everything would be fine back home. And yet loneliness is made as well as given, and at a very early age.
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. 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. Last year, I visited a monkey lab in the rolling farmland of rural Maryland run by a burly and affable psychologist-turned- primatologist named Steve Suomi.
Luckier monkeys had that and cloth-covered versions of the same thing to cuddle. It is remarkable what a soft cloth can do to calm an anxious baby monkey down. In the most extreme cases, the babies languished alone at the bottom of a V-shaped steel container.
Years of monkey therapy were required to integrate them into the troop. Behaviorists, who reigned in U. They scoffed at the notion that baby monkeys could be hard-wired for love, or at least for a certain quality of touch. What Suomi has that Harlow did not have is technology. Suomi raises his monkeys in three groups, one group confined entirely to the company of peers a chaotic, Lord of the Flies kind of childhood ; another group left alone with terry-cloth mother-surrogates, except when released for a couple of hours a day to scamper with fellow babies; and the third raised by their mothers.
What he found is that, in monkeys separated from their mothers in the first four months of life, some important immunity-related genes show a different pattern of expression. Among these were genes that help make the protein that inflames tissue and genes that tell the body to ward off viruses and other microbes.
In humans, faulty wiring in the prefrontal cortex has been associated with schizophrenia and ADHD. Some of the aberrations were on genes that direct growth of the brain; modifications of those were bound to result in altered neural architecture. Suomi took me outside to watch them. They huddled in nervous groups at the back of the cage, holding tight to each another. Sometimes, he said, they invite aggression by cowering; at other times, they fail to recognize and kowtow to the alpha monkeys, so they get picked on even more.
The most perturbed monkeys might rock, clutch at themselves, and pull out their own hair, looking for all the world like children with severe autism. He pointed out some who had been given over to foster grandmothers. Not only did they act more monkey-like, but, he told me, about half of their genetic deviations had vanished, too. If we now know that loneliness, a social emotion, can reach into our bodies and rearrange our cells and genes, what should we do about it?
We should change the way we think about health. Heckman believes that the life of a child at the lower end of the U.
She was raised in a middle-class Orthodox Jewish family and was the oldest of three daughters; her sisters were Grete and Anna. She came from a large, supportive and impactful family. Her paternal great grandfather had 93 grandchildren and her extended family played an important role in her life. Her mother was part of a group that established a preparatory school for girls in to prepare them for university because girls were not permitted to attend Gymnasium. Due to the stresses of this impairment and the impending end of his career, Adolf died by suicide in At age 36, Frieda began an affair with her patient, Erich Seligmann Fromm , who was a student of psychoanalysis and social psychology. The couple agreed that Erich would move to Switzerland to undergo specialized treatment and to live apart.
Fromm Reichmann on Loneliness