Focus-Science and Technology - - Contents - Daniel Ben­nett, Ed­i­tor

When it comes to un­der­stand­ing lone­li­ness, mu­sic’s pretty much got it cov­ered. From The Bea­tles to Bill Withers, and Roy Or­bi­son to Ra­dio­head, some of the great­est songs in modern his­tory were writ­ten to ex­press and re­lieve the pain of be­ing alone. Sci­ence, it seems, has a bit of catch­ing up to do.

We’ve known for a long time that iso­la­tion is bad for us. Ac­counts of pris­on­ers placed in soli­tary con­fine­ment and ques­tion­able ex­per­i­ments re­vealed the strange ways that ex­treme lone­li­ness warps the brain. Mean­while, large-scale anal­y­sis of the im­pacts of lone­li­ness have shown that the chron­i­cally lonely tend to have higher blood pressure, are more likely to suf­fer from de­men­tia and have weak­ened im­mune systems. In the long term, be­ing lonely is worse for you than smok­ing 15 cig­a­rettes a day. We know that lone­li­ness is deadly, but what we don’t un­der­stand is how iso­la­tion af­fects us so fun­da­men­tally that it changes us at a cel­lu­lar level.

This is a prob­lem. It seems like a lone­li­ness epi­demic is loom­ing across the west­ern world, de­spite so­cial me­dia and the in­ter­net mak­ing it eas­ier to con­nect to each other. In the UK, 1 in 10 peo­ple re­port that they feel too lonely; over half of par­ents say that they’ve had prob­lems with lone­li­ness; and Child­line says there has been a 10 per cent rise in calls from chil­dren suf­fer­ing from lone­li­ness. To shed light on the issue, this year the BBC is com­mis­sion­ing its own re­search and Ra­dio 4’s All In The Mind will be air­ing a se­ries of pro­grammes based on lone­li­ness at dif­fer­ent stages of life. On p48, Moya Sarner in­ves­ti­gates how lone­li­ness hurts us, and what sci­ence can do about it.

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