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Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection Hardcover – August 17, 2008
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A pioneering neuroscientist reveals the reasons for loneliness and what to do about it.John T. Cacioppoâs groundbreaking research topples one of the pillars of modern medicine and psychology: the focus on the individual as the unit of inquiry. By employing brain scans, monitoring blood pressure, and analyzing immune function, he demonstrates the overpowering influence of social contextâa factor so strong that it can alter DNA replication. He defines an unrecognized syndromeâchronic lonelinessâbrings it out of the shadow of its cousin depression, and shows how this subjective sense of social isolation uniquely disrupts our perceptions, behavior, and physiology, becoming a trap that not only reinforces isolation but can also lead to early death. He gives the lie to the Hobbesian view of human nature as a âwar of all against all,â and he shows how social cooperation is, in fact, humanityâs defining characteristic. Most important, he shows how we can break the trap of isolation for our benefit both as individuals and as a society.
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On the scientific front, Loneliness is a phenomenal work. It provides evidence that loneliness is not just an ephemeral emotion that we feel from time to time, but rather a DRIVE analogous to hunger and thirst. To this end, Cacioppo cites more studies than you'll probably be able to digest, but he makes his point. He goes out of his way to convince us that loneliness is significant, even apart from other issues like depression. He shows that it matters biologically, and has easily measurable physiological effects, and even explains why it matters on a societal and national level.
Cacioppo talks about a concept he calls "co-regulation," which describes how humans regulate their internal emotional states through interpersonal interaction. He professionally specializes in a field called "Social Neuroscience," and I think this is his primary valued added on the topic. No one else writing about this subject would spend so much time examining how our internal state is so heavily regulated by our communal environment.
Cacioppo also talks about dealing with loneliness as an personal experience. He says: "The most difficult conceptual hurdle for people in the throes of loneliness is that, although they are going through something that feels like a hole in the center of their being--a hunger that needs to be fed--this hunger can never be satisfied by focusing on 'eating.' What's required is to set aside the pain...long enough to feed others."
He implies with this and many other statements that lonely people need to learn better to GIVE rather than TAKE.
However, earlier he describes a study in which lonely and non-lonely people were asked to listen to the problems of another person. He says the lonely people displayed just as good social skills, and actually stayed with the conversation longer. In other words, the lonely people--surprisingly--were MORE successful at active listening. This doesn't jive beautifully with Cacioppo's image of needy people who fail to properly give.
Early on he describes a turn-of-the-century African tribesman who was put in a zoo in the United States. Later, the tribesman was freed and was given a job and a decent life. In the end, though, the tribesman's loneliness drove him to kill himself. Perhaps that tribesman could have taken Cacioppo's advice to be more "open to others," but somehow I doubt that would have mitigated his loneliness. He could have given half a sandwich to a homeless man (as one of Cacioppo's friends did), but somehow I think the tribesman's sense of isolation ran a little deeper than personal stinginess.
I have been chronically lonely for 10 years, and most days I hope for death. I make friends easily. I have past friends and present family numbers who would be thrilled if I picked up the phone right now and called them. But I know from experience that after I speak to any of these people that I will feel even lonelier. Not one of these people shares my values or my beliefs, and not one of these people will genuinely understand whatever struggle I happen to be going through at the moment. They will have good intentions, and they will try to be helpful, but no matter how articulate I am they won't understand what I say. I wrack my head every day trying to figure out why they can't and what I'm missing.
The net result is that Cacioppo's advice feels patronizing and insulting. It's surprising to me that although Cacioppo has had lonely test subjects coming into his laboratory for years, and despite all his praising of human empathy, he nonetheless possesses a truly mediocre understanding of the experience of loneliness that those test subjects feel.
In sum: good on the macro, bad on the micro.
But overall, i had mixed feelings when reading it. The discussion of the studies done on loneliness are very interesting, except perhaps the 'tit for tat' prisoner dilemna games - it wasn't that these were inherently uninteresting but it seems everyone likes to write about them and I've read about them countless times. And this was my feeling with the entire book. Sometimes I was very engaged and felt the subject was very interesting and the analysis was very useful and sometimes I felt, well, somewhat bored.
The description of the author's trip to 'Spain', however, was truly priceless and I found I was laughing out loud.