How our brains map relationships and loneliness

  • New research shows how we map our relationships in our brains 
  • Parts of the brain differentiate between the self; our social networks made up of close connections and acquaintances; and celebrities
  • The study also shows how loneliness is linked to a break in the mapping 

We are the relationships we surround ourselves with – or that’s one theory about how we construct our perceived selves. 

But scientifically, it could boil down to how certain parts of our brain map our social relationships and how many similarities we find between those we love and the self. 

READ: Why grandma isn't so lonely after all

Researchers from Stanford University and Dartmouth College wanted to find out how our brains represent these social connections, and what insight it might bring to helping people deal with loneliness – a concept that might become all too real for many during times of disconnection. 

The social brain

Publishing their findings in JNeurosci, they analysed brain scans of 50 university students and community members – more than half were women ranging in age between 18 and 47 – while discussing the traits the self, five loved ones, five acquaintances and five celebrities. 

The famous people represented were Ellen Degeneres, Kim Kardashian, Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, and Mark Zuckerberg.

While researchers scanned the whole brain, the focus was on the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFS) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), regions that represent the social brain that regulates self-representation. 

ALSO READ: Are you lonely? Your tweets offer important clues, experts say

The researchers found that the MPFS and PCC light up differently depending on the perceived closeness of the subjects, and three main social categories emerged: the self; the social network that makes up close others and acquaintances; and celebrities. 

There was also significant self-other overlap when subjects were discussing their loved ones, which means that our close relationships could be predicated on the similarities we share with others that determine closeness, like shared experiences. 

These affected brain regions can also control perceived popularity, judging people on the well-connectedness of their social networks. 

While we might consider acquaintances as separate to loved ones and less vital to our lives, they remain important to social well-being, and in the brain mapping, they are considered as such.

SEE: Lonely in relationships

The science of loneliness

But when it comes to subjects that rate themselves as lonely according to the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the researchers found a type of distortion in the brain’s mapping. Generally, this emotion is defined as a perceived gap between the self and others, although considered quite subjective. 

Lonely subjects had a decreased self-other overlap, indicating that their brain wasn’t finding representations of the self in their social network. Greater loneliness was associated with less activation of the MPFC, despite the fact that the subjects rated their close relationships highly. 

The brain map also shows blurring between close others, acquaintances and celebrities, making them less distinct from each other. The researchers called this a "lonelier neural self".

However, in PCC, which keeps track of the perception of power in relationships, the activation is higher which can distort how a person interacts in social situations. They might not be able to identify social cues as effectively, which can increase loneliness. 

“The paths we take in social life may depend, in part, on the interpersonal maps we carry in our brains,” write the authors. 

Connection with others promotes wellbeing, and the researchers hope these findings could help develop interventions for those who feel disconnected from society – and create a better understanding of how we organise our self. 

READ: Can sleep deprivation make you more lonely?

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Image credit: iStock

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