John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick

Loneliness—Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

Review by Jennifer Coleman, 2008

Cacioppo, John T.; Patrick, William. Loneliness—Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008). US$25.95.

John Cacioppo and William Patrick, in their recent book Loneliness, argue compellingly that: “Health and well-being for a member of our species requires among other things, being satisfied and secure in our bonds with other people.” This is the condition of “not being lonely.” Connecting his statement to neurology, Cacioppo and Patrick assert that the concept of social pain is more than metaphor. He notes that studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveal that the same region of the brain is activated by physical pain—the dorsal interior cingulate—as is activated by feelings of rejection and loneliness.

Many prominent philosophers, theologians, and scientists also assert that humans are tribal creatures. What is singularly compelling about this text is the authors' detailed discussion of why natural selection resulted in the creatures we are, and how it influenced the “peculiar architecture of our brain.” They conclude that from our primitive origins and primitive brains, more complexity and new capacities for functioning evolved. “These new capacities, located in the part of the brain called the neocortex, allow us to write symphonies, discuss which actor made the best James Bond and plan trips to Mars.”

Our primitive neural processing and brain structures—that is, the ones we share with monkeys and mice—were not replaced. Rather newer systems developed as “layers” upon the primitive structures. They call this, in computer jargon, “a layered upgrade rather than a download and overwrite.” In metaphoric language easily understood by non-neuroscientists, Cacioppo and Patrick state:

What this layered upgrade means, in practical terms, is that the neocortex is not the undisputed captain of the ship. The neocortex is up on the bridge, observing and aware, planning and making decisions, but there is always grumbling below deck from the more primitive and emotional layers of the brain that were on board long before the neocortex showed up.

Cacioppo and Patrick carefully piece together how various traits associated with community—with coordinating social life and with “not being lonely”—served critical evolutionary purposes without which human beings likely would have vanished. The authors argue that the importance of community took a dangerously wrong turn approximately 300 years ago with the philosophical and theological “trend toward greater isolation by a new cultural focus on the individual.”

This new philosophical shift towards rationalism and individualism, reinforced by the rise of Protestant theology, stressed individual responsibility for finding success in life and salvation at the end. Thomas Hobbes’ emphasis on pure reason presented a view of humanity in the state of nature governed entirely by individual appetites and aversions, living in a benighted state of war. Famously, Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that life in the unregulated state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Quite to the contrary, Cacioppo and Patrick dispute the allegation that life was “solitary.” Rather: “the driving force of our advance as a species has not been our tendency to be brutally self-interested, but our ability to be socially cooperative.”

It is not possible in this review to do justice to Cacioppo’s  and Patrick's intelligent and convincing survey of our evolutionary behavior and related brain structures, and the damage inflicted by loneliness on humans essentially designed for social connectedness. The research they review is fascinating and multidisciplinary. It ranges from Darwin and Marjorie Shostak’s study of life among the !Kung tribe of hunter gatherers, through research trials to determine the role genes play in temperament and how the brain functions in social and individual situations, to how many cookies lonely people eat compared to socially connected people.

Cacioppo and Patrick believe that our society, with its emphasis on individual achievement and idealization of the “individualism,” has “gone overboard in its emphasis on standing alone.” They note various studies showing that, to satisfy affiliative needs, many isolated individuals turn to pets, computer relationships, and even to forming what they call “parasocial relationships” with TV characters. Without other human beings to fill the void, we make do. They note a broad increase in people anthropomorphizing relations with their pets and a common strategy to avoid loneliness by creating anthropomorphic relationships with supernatural agents (whether gods or devils, ghosts of lost loved ones, and so on).

Through results from various research projects reviewed in the text, Cacioppo and Patrick insist that “chronic loneliness not only makes us miserable, it can make us sick.” They draw from religious and scientific sources to make their point. From C.S. Lewis, in the tradition of John Donne, they quote: “We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.” From E. O. Wilson, in the tradition of Charles Darwin, they quotes: “We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust. We must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here.”

Cacioppo and Patrick do not argue that the human need for social connectedness, and its opposite, loneliness, is meant to imply that these are matters simply of brain structure or the structure of society that evolution preferred over its long course. In fact the authors, like any serious thinkers about these issues, go to great pains to express the multi-determined nature of loneliness (psychological, genetic, hereditary, environmental, personal thresholds for tolerating the many emotions and behaviors of social engagement). Although loneliness is multi-determined, the essential conclusion in Loneliness is that humans crave and need connection, and avoid and can be made ill by isolation. By nature we are social creatures. And without effective social connectedness, which can take innumerable forms, loneliness can be devastating.

Cacioppo and Patrick venture briefly into the “spiritual” aspects of loneliness and social connection. But the brutal, fundamental, biological and psychological isolation he deals with is not the same as “loneliness” or “aloneness” praised by some spiritual seekers. It is other than the “dark night of the soul,” which many religious thinkers take as a necessary passage to true spiritual being (for example, see Wesley Wildman, "In Praise of Loneliness," in Leroy Rouner, ed., Loneliness (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1998): 15-39).