The epidemic of loneliness ails more than just the heart! According to researchers from University College London, people feeling lonely have a tougher time decoding social cues like eye-gazing because of diminished grey matter in the brain.
The study also advocated that lonely people can be taught how to improve their social perception and cure their loneliness to an extent.
Before conducting the research the team expected to find a link between lonely people and the part of the brain related to emotions and anxiety. However, the new study on loneliness began to yield a surprising link between loneliness and the amount of grey matter in the part of the brain involved in basic social perception.
The researchers scanned the brains of 108 healthy adults and gave them a variety of tests. Loneliness was self-reported and measured with a UCLA loneliness scale questionnaire.
The brain scans revealed that lonely individuals had less grey matter in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) — an area associated with basic social perception. This suggests that loneliness is linked to difficulties in processing social cues.
In order to gauge social perception, participants viewed three different faces on a screen and were asked to judge which face had misaligned eyes and whether they were looking either right or left.
The study found that lonely people had a much harder time identifying which way the eyes were looking, confirming the link between loneliness, the size of the pSTS and the perception of eye gaze.
The study did not extrapolate if loneliness is hardwired or environmental. But social perception training might just be ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ to combat feelings of loneliness.