Monday, September 8, 2008


I have been reading Loneliness, a new book by medical researchers John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. It's a round-up of psychological, physiological, and neurological studies done on the subject of human loneliness and its sub-concerns: isolation, affiliation, empathy, altruism, and evolutionary genetics. The authors' main point is that human beings are genetically wired to live in groups, and that there are definite physiological and neurological consequences when we don't do that. And the authors can write; this is a lively tome, not a collection of dry journal articles.

Obviously, being alone is not the same as being lonely, and different people have different needs and tolerances for "alone time." That said, there are still traceable patterns among those who self-rate as "fairly" or "very" or "often" lonely. These include increased stress hormones (cortisol et. al.) But what interests me more than that are the specific, limited studies on reactions to loneliness.

To cite only one: Lonely people pay more attention, not less, to social cues and signals than do non-lonely people. This seems counter-intuitive until you come to the analogy with food: hungry people pay more attention to food than the sated. However, the lonely are less skilled at correctly interpreting others' nonverbal cues. Which is one reason they're lonely in the first place.

I wish I had read this book before I sold my story "Act One" to ASIMOV'S. That story, which comes out next year (I think) could have benefited from the knowledge in this book. At any rate, I recommend Loneliness to anyone curious about why the human animal behaves as it does.


bluesman miike Lindner said...

Interesting, Nancy! But I wonder why those lonely people who pay more attention to non-verbal cues don't eventually learn to interpret those cues correctly.

And I wonder too what, if any, correlation there is with adult loneliness and simply not have being =held= as a baby?

Mark said...

Bluesman: I posit that most people just don't realize how much we're able to learn and how much change we can effect in our behavior and social interactions. As an example: I'm a Big-Time Introvert (INTP, FYI) yet have learned to survive in sales and management environments. We do naturally tend to round ourselves out as far as psychological typology over the years, yet the prevailing "wisdom" may be that "it's just the way it is/I am, and nothing can be changed, so just accept it."

References: Brian Tracy, Nathaniel Brandon

Nancy Kress said...

Mark-- I agree with you. I think most of us construct a "public persona" with traits that aren't necessarily natural to us. It's a necessity to exist in a social environment. As long as one doesn't confuse one's public persona wit the inner person, it's fine. In fact, people who won't, or can't, do this, or often socially maladept. I know some of these people.

Anonymous said...

I've found the AA prayer/meditation helpful in such matters: "[May I gain] the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the strength to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Nancy, the things you cited from Loneliness may have spoiled the mystery of a character in a story I'm reading. She's been a real puzzle to me but those loneliness traits fit. Bingo? She's also constantly putting out the wrong signals and being misunderstood by others. Is that in the book too?

I see it's in hardcover. I'll try to remember to pick it up in paper -- or, preferably, in ebook format. It sounds fascinating.