Andy’s Quick Hits (18): How do Lonely Brains Differ from Wise Brains?

Andy Hab
3 min readJun 8, 2021

I reported a few weeks ago how wise people are less likely to be lonely and how lonely people are less likely to be wise. There seems to be strong inverse relationship to these two characteristics — so why, and what drives this in the brain?

Recent research has given us some answers to this by focusing on how wise and lonely people process emotions. The researchers from University of California San Diego School of Medicine showed that the brains of lonely and wise people process some emotions in opposing ways.

The research included 147 people from the ages of 18–85 and involved making decision on directions of arrows when combined with distractors that were pictures of faces expressing different emotions. This was combined with EEG measurements measuring brain activity. The results are fascinating.

  • Those higher on loneliness responded slower when presented with angry faces showing higher sensitivity to angry or threatening stimuli.
  • Those higher on wise traits responded quicker when presented with happy faces, showing positive responses to positive stimuli

This opposing relationship is fascinating, showing how social responses are different. A question to answer is that is this a self-fulfilling prophecy lonely people responding to threatening faces and situations more, and therefore withdrawing more from society.

Looking into the brain, the region that was identified as being most active in both the lonely and the wise, is a brain region called the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ). This regions is involved in theory of mind — being able to put oneself in another's shoes. this was highest activated in the brains of those who were more lonely and those who were more wise.

The difference is that those who are wise are responding more to happiness and those who are lonely are responding more to threat. This is important because it gives us a better grip on what loneliness is in the brain and how to create interventions for this. This points to the fact that just having contact to people may not help people who are lonely because of their sensitivity to threat so intervening by minimising their sensitivity to threat may produce the largest impacts — this because loneliness has been shown to have numerous negative impacts on health and mental health.

The researchers are looking to study this further — I look forward to the results!

More on the link between wisdom, loneliness, and the microbiome here.

More on simple things for brain health here.

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Andy is author of leading brains Review a monthly e-magazine on all things the brain, behaviour, and business

Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!