Lonely People's Brains Work Differently And Could Be Making Their Isolation Worse

Lacking a shared experience of the world could stop people forming social connections.

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

Editor and Staff Writer

man in foreground looks sad while four people are socialising in the background

Lonely people often report feeling misunderstood by others.

Image credit: silverkblackstock/

Loneliness is something many of us will experience, but in the long term, it is known to have all sorts of negative impacts on health and well-being. Now, new research trying to better understand why lonely people feel the way they do has found that their brains actually appear to process the world very differently, and in a way that is unique to each person.

Humans – like many of our furry and feathered friends – have evolved to crave social connections. Just recently, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and restrictions on group gatherings at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic gave us a glimpse into the reality of social isolation, and many of us did not like what we saw.


Chronic loneliness has been highlighted as a major public health issue, and research has shown that it actually alters our brain chemistry – but, despite this, there’s a lot that scientists don’t know about the feelings underlying loneliness. A study from a team at UCLA used brain imaging to try to find out more.

The study was led by Elisa Baek, now an assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife, and included 66 first-year college students aged between 18 and 21. The students completed a questionnaire to rate their experience of loneliness, before having their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching a range of video clips that mimicked the experience of watching TV while someone else is channel-hopping.

The group was split into “lonely” and “nonlonely” cohorts based on the results of the questionnaire. When the researchers looked at the imaging data, they found that the lonely people had brain activity patterns that were distinct from those of nonlonely people. Crucially, however, each lonely individual displayed a processing pattern that was largely unique to them, while all the nonlonely people were very alike.

“It was surprising to find that lonely people were even less similar to each other,” said Baek in a statement.


The different neural responses were particularly pronounced in regions of the default mode network, which is important for our ability to interpret and make sense of things we are seeing. The findings, therefore, suggest that lonely people may have trouble forming social connections, even with other lonely people, because they lack a shared way of understanding and processing the world around them.

This chimes with other data, suggesting that lonely people tend to feel as though they are different from or poorly understood by other people.

The research showed that those who reported higher levels of loneliness had the most distinct brain responses, regardless of how many friends or social connections they actually had in real life. This suggested that simply being surrounded by friends may not be enough to alleviate loneliness if everyone you socialize with sees the world differently from how you do.

Baek is particularly interested in examining this group – people who have regular social interaction but still feel lonely – in more detail. And there are other questions left to be answered, like exactly what thought processes are setting lonely people apart. For example, if a group of people are all placed in the same social context, is it the case that the nonlonely people all have a very similar experience while the lonely people are each individually focusing on different aspects of the situation?


In a world where we are superficially more connected than ever, social isolation remains a big concern. Research like this, which seeks to understand more about the risk factors for loneliness and the fundamentals of why people feel lonely, can only be a good thing.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.


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  • brain,

  • psychology,

  • brain activity,

  • lonely,

  • loneliness,

  • social isolation,

  • default mode network