Can Being Lonely Make You Sick?


That is a big question that touches on several fields of science. “Relational neuroscience” refers to the intersection of interpersonal neurobiology, relational cultural theory, and neuroplasticity and has emerged in the past 20 years. Technological advances, including functional MRI, single-photon emission CT, and PET, have allowed us to finally see the brain in action and the way in which relationships turn the brain on.

And lo and behold, what has emerged is the identification of very specific neural networks that are dedicated to interpersonal relationships, to connecting, and to all of the specific skills that we need to be in healthy human connection.

Popular Western theories of human development focus on the belief that we are born dependent, and the task of socialization is to raise increasingly independent, individualistic people. This process of development describes separation from others as a sign of maturity. Individuals in this model are able to “stand on their own two feet.” My colleagues and I believe that this developmental process has disintegrated or weakened the position of relationship in our culture.

Other cultures, primarily Eastern, focus on the centrality of relationships to all human health and well-being. When human beings are built within the context of human relationships, a much more sophisticated interpersonal neural network is built that allows a person to participate in relationships in a way that calms the stress response system, builds the immune system, and creates a sense of belonging. In this setting, when a person is separated from his group, a warning alarm of pain is issued, telling him that he is in danger.

So, there’s a whole physiology there just waiting to be tapped into, if we are setting up social societies in a way that really focuses on the centrality of relationships to health and well-being.

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