Thursday, 10 November 2016

Interview with Steve Cole on Loneliness

In this post I interview Steve Cole Professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at David Geffen UCLA School of Medicine.

VM: Loneliness has been characterized in reference to feelings of distress and dysphoria resulting from a mismatch between a person’s desired and achieved levels of social relations. In some of your latest papers you suggest that the experience of loneliness is not a uniquely human phenomenon but that, as any other adaptive predispositions, it can be found across phylogeny. In what sense can we say that animals desire social relations and experience loneliness? 

SC: We begin by assuming that certain experiences are privileged to human beings but the more we understand about how human experience arises from the way the brain works, the more we find that there are small or vestigial versions of even the most esoteric human experiences in other animals. Most animals, for example monkeys and mammals, broadly speaking, are to some extent, social. They often have to interact with one another to reproduce, to raise the young. Often they have social strategies beyond just those simple biological processes that involve group defence, group signalling and pack behaviours for defensive purposes or to coordinate on resource acquisition. 

So clearly there is a sociality to animals, even relatively simple animals and I think where people might say there is something distinctive for humans is the way we think about that or the emotional experiences we have. It is difficult to say that these things don’t happen in animals because we cannot talk to animals and understand their emotional states. So, before we knew how emotional systems work or even how social processes affect the body it was easy for us to think that this was distinctive for human beings. Both human and animal research in which social preference is tested illustrate the importance of the discrepancy between conspecific preference and realized social condition. (See here.) 

What we are now coming to believe is that what is distinctive is not necessarily qualitatively distinctive. In other words, animals might have simple versions of many of the kinds of processes that human beings have more elaborate processes of. That’s why looking at loneliness in monkeys does make some sense. When John Cacioppo talks about loneliness, he distinguishes the experience of isolation or whether there is another individual around or not. That’s a description of the external circumstances and those external circumstances are undoubtedly perceived by an animal. But what kind of meaning gets added to that perception is the part that’s probably sort of qualitatively different from human beings.

VM: We could think of loneliness as a biological adaptation. In one of your papers you highlight the fact that sociality carries costs as well as benefits and that the behaviours which are relevant to the benefits of sociality and to mitigating the costs of sociality have contributed to the variations in social structures. Could the fact that more and more people are embracing solitude be a related to this overwhelmingly rapid-changing society in which we live?

SC: Most data suggests that while human beings have a magnetism for other human beings, we didn't evolve to live in huge crowds. We seek out groups of maybe 20 or at most 50 or 60 individuals. In other words, native social context of human beings was probably relatively small bands of a few families or extended families living and travelling together. And it doesn't look like humans are very good at storing information about more than about 30-50 other individuals; after that, we get overwhelmed.(This is “Dunbar’s number” for a social group size.) And it is not the case that historically other human beings were always necessarily a good thing to have around. There were occasions in which other human beings were raiding your camp or stealing your food and your spouse, or infecting you with diseases.

So, human beings are great assets to other human beings but they can also be great threats. And because of the significance of other people’s behaviours, they are objects of a heightened significance for us as individual perceivers and that’s really what happens in loneliness. At the core of loneliness, there is a combination of wanting to be around other people but at the same time feeling threatened thinking that other people are likely to reject you or they are untrustworthy or they will take advantage of you. 

So it is really both of these two worlds of social life that we just talked about. You need other people but having too many other people or unfamiliar other people who might exploit you or take advantage of you is also threatening so when you have both of those things together is when you have the classic paradox of loneliness in a room full of people. What’s interesting is you are going to have a situation when somebody, let’s say, feels threatened or uncomfortable with others especially strangers. If they don’t have such a strong positive social motivation they’ll end up being introverted, on their own but usually quite happily so. So it’s easy to distinguish between loneliness from introversion. Somebody who is comfortable with this idea of being alone or only a small number of others or with others only occasionally from a lonely person where you want more social contact and acceptance than you actually can achieve. So that’s really the interesting distinction; both are alone but one is relatively ok with that while the other one is suffering and hungry for more contact.

VM: You explain that the same objective social relationship can be perceived as caring and protective or as exploiting and isolating so a person can feel lonely even in the presence of family and friends. Which mechanisms determine whether we perceive others as friendly or as threatening? Is it in our biological constitution or can we think that our experiences have an important role to play? And to what extent is our attention determined (I might venture to say biased) by these attitudes?

SC: In cognitive psychology and social cognition we now assume that everybody is biased all the time, none of us perceive reality objectively. We can perhaps accept that everybody has biases and another way of thinking about biases is perhaps connecting them with knowledge, with things that you’ve learned from the world you’ve lived in, the experiences you’ve had, and that determines the kinds of things that you can expect out of life.

An operating hypothesis right now is that there is a mental model that a person has about whether you can trust other people which is some product of the actual self-experiences a person’s had (historically or developmentally) and there is also what you can think of as a native neurobiological sensitivity for rejection. That kind of neurobiological sensitivity to threat and rejection is not a fixed characteristic of a person but if you have repeated or extended experiences of threat, that will actually sensitize your brain to detect and response to social threats.

When your brain becomes more sensitive, it will scan the environment trying to identify threats so what you get is this vicious cycle where either due to unfortunate life circumstances or due to an initial biological sensitivity you end up either way sensitizing the brain over time so that people become hyper-vigilant and they start to look for any tiny sign of threat. If I’m the kind of person who’s had a rough upbringing or was born with neurobiological social sensitivity or both of these things, when I go into new social settings I am not going to come up into the first person that I see be immediately friendly to them. 

Instead, I’m going to be slightly slower and a bit more reserved. The response from other people to this reserved behaviour will be a bit more reserved as well, as they are uncertain of how I feel about them. So in response to their somewhat reserved behaviour, I am going to confirm my theory about the world being threatening. It becomes this vicious cycle or loop where the behaviour creates another loop from the social world outside me so then the social world really is kind of, in a self-fulfilling prophecy sense, proving my theory. Our big challenge in loneliness is how to intervene in ways that break that loop.

VM: The premise that the brain is a key organ for social connections and processes is central in your line of argument. Current theories on embodied cognition in philosophy argue that our brain is not the only element which processes our experiences and that human beings can conduct themselves in the world without necessarily having to resort to mental representations. Do you think this theories could be compatible with the current empirical data?

SC: This is actually a place where philosophers have a lot to contribute. Data say very clearly that there is more than one system working in the human brain. There is a conscious system that is symbolic and propositional and aware. When we interact with others, we see them, think about them, think about what we are talking about. But separately from that, clearly, there are other systems that are automatically maintaining what is going on in other parts of our brain and especially in other parts of our bodies which are only loosely coupled to conscious experiences. As we have these interactions we are not at the same time thinking that we need to make our hearts beat, or move our stomach, and yet we know that all that is controlled by the nervous system. 

There is a set of nerves that runs from the brain to all this visceral systems but if I try to make my heart beat faster, I cannot make that happen. I can think about some frightening thought and my heart will as a consequence beat faster but there is a different translation to what my heart is doing than just me thinking it should beat faster. 

So one good metaphor is to say that the human body has an operating system just like a computer has an operating system. It’s a programme that’s running behind the scenes all the time. It is not the application, it’s not the web browser or the word processor. All that is the conscious mind. But behind the scenes there is another programme that keeps the whole system running that keeps the screen on, the information flow going, that manages the disruptions, etc.

That same thing is happening in the human brain, that operating system level activity. And that is what is closest to what the rest of our body is doing. That system seems to make only a small number of fairly crude distinctions about what is going on in our life. At core, it seems to be mostly sensitive to whether my life circumstances are relatively safe or threatening.

VM: How would loneliness fit in this scenario?

SC: What’s interesting about loneliness is that there seems to be a fair amount of leakage between our perception of other people which happens relatively automatically without us thinking too much about it. Those decisions are happening at this non-conscious operating system level and we have very weak capacity to actually think about running that differently. Many things happen in our conscious minds that don’t leak down to the brain stem and down into the rest of the body and loneliness seems to be one of the things that does leak. But it doesn’t leak in the simple conscious sense of “I’m lonely”, it seems to leak in the form of a message about threat vs. security. 

What’s interesting is this whole world of having a purpose or a goal. That seems to be another thing in the conscious world which seems to leak down to the brain and give importance to things we could value besides whether we are safe. So that becomes like that therapeutic state when I am not so focused on myself and am I at threat. I’m focused on something that I value a lot and it turns out we value a lot of things besides our own individual health and security. That’s why getting threatened people to focus on things that they care about turns out to be a pretty good trick form a neurobiological perspective because it shifts the balance between these two powerful brain systems -one involved in avoiding danger or threat and responding to it somehow, and the other one involved in seeking and discovering and wanting. It turns out, you can outcompete the threat version with the seeking and wanting system.

So the final take home points about loneliness is that attacking it head on may not work. But short circuiting the effects of loneliness by reconnecting with or focusing on what the person actually values, may ultimately be the most effective way to get lonely people not to feel so threatened. Focusing on a goal or mission may help get lonely people back engaged in things where they will then learn for real that other people are not always threatening.  As a result, they may build social relationships and social capital that will give them the resources they need to feel ok and well satisfied with the degree of social connection they actually achieve.  

1 comment:

  1. This one is a good interview that provides an idea how people feel loneliness and how to make them able to be a part of community.


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