Your brain shows if you are lonely or not

This shows a brain and print out from the study

Summary: In the medial prefrontal cortex, loneliness is associated with a reduced representational similarity between the self and others. Feeling socially disconnected may be mirrored by a self-representation of being a “loner.”

Source: Dartmouth College

Social connection with others is critical to a person’s mental and physical well-being. How the brain maps relationships with other people in relation to one’s self has long been a mystery. A Dartmouth study finds that the closer you feel to people emotionally, the more similarly you represent them in your brain. In contrast, people who feel social disconnection appear to have a lonelier, neural self-representation. The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“If we had a stamp of neural activity that reflected your self-representation and one that reflected that of people whom you are close to, for most of us, our stamps of neural activity would look pretty similar. Yet, for lonelier people, the neural activity was really differentiated from that of other people,” explained senior author Meghan L. Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, and director of the Dartmouth Social Neuroscience Lab.

This shows a brain and print out from the study

The study was comprised of 50 college students and community members ranging from age 18 to 47. Before going in an fMRI scanner, participants were asked to name and rank five people whom they are closest to and five acquaintances. During the scan, participants were asked to make trait judgements about themselves, the people they are closest to and the acquaintances that they had just named, and five celebrities. Participants were asked to rate how much a trait described a person (such as if the person is friendly) on a scale from 1 to 4 (from not at all to very much).

The results showed how the brain seemed to cluster representations of people into three different cliques: 1) oneself, 2) one’s own social network, and 3) well-known people, like celebrities. The closer participants felt to someone, the more similarly their brain represented them throughout the social brain, including in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the region associated with the concept of self. Lonelier people showed less neural similarity between themselves and others in the MPFC, and the demarcations between the three cliques was blurrier in their neural activity. In other words, the lonelier people are, the less similar their brain looks when they think about themselves and others.

Meyer added, “It’s almost as if you have a specific constellation of neural activity that is activated when you think about yourself. And when you think about your friends, much of the same constellation is recruited. If you are lonely though, you activate a fairly, different constellation when you think about others than when you think about yourself. It’s as though your brain’s representation of yourself is more disconnected from other people, which is consistent with how lonely people say they feel.”

The findings illustrate how loneliness seems to be associated with distortions in the neural mapping of social connections with others.

About this neuroscience research article

Dartmouth College
Media Contacts:
Amy D. Olson – Dartmouth College
Image Source:
The image is credited to Andrea L. Courtney and Meghan L. Meyer.

Original Research: Closed access
“Self-other representation in the social brain reflects social connection”. by Andrea L. Courtney and Meghan L. Meyer.
Journal of Neuroscience doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2826-19.2020


Self-other representation in the social brain reflects social connection

Social connection is critical to well-being, yet how the brain reflects our attachment to other people remains largely unknown. We combined univariate and multivariate brain imaging analyses to assess whether and how the brain organizes representations of others based on how connected they are to our own identity. During an fMRI scan, female and male human participants (N=43) completed a self- and other-reflection task for 16 targets: the self, five close others, five acquaintances, and five celebrities. In addition, they reported their subjective closeness to each target and their own trait loneliness. We examined neural responses to the self and others in a brain region that has been associated with self-representation (medial prefrontal cortex; MPFC) and across the whole brain. The structure of self-other representation in the MPFC and across the social brain appeared to cluster targets into three social categories: the self, social network members (including close others and acquaintances), and celebrities. Moreover, both univariate activation in MPFC and multivariate self-other similarity in MPFC and across the social brain increased with subjective self-other closeness ratings. Critically, participants who were less socially connected (i.e. lonelier) showed altered self-other mapping in social brain regions. Most notably, in MPFC, loneliness was associated with reduced representational similarity between the self and others. The social brain apparently maintains information about broad social categories as well as closeness to the self. Moreover, these results point to the possibility that feelings of chronic social disconnection may be mirrored by a ‘lonelier’ neural self-representation.

Significance Statement

Social connection is critical to well-being, yet how the brain reflects our attachment to people remains unclear. We found that the social brain stratifies neural representations of people based on our subjective connection to them, separately clustering people who are and are not in our social network. Moreover, the people we feel closest to are represented most closely to ourselves. Finally, lonelier individuals also appeared to have a ‘lonelier’ neural self-representation in the MPFC, as loneliness attenuated the closeness between self and other neural representations in this region. The social brain appears to map our interpersonal ties, and alterations in this map may help explain why lonely individuals endorse statements such as ‘people are around me but not with me.’

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