The 21st century definition of loneliness has ironically come to contain the most “connected” people in history. As it turns out, the more plugged-in we are to the various technological perks of modern-day living, the more unplugged and isolated we become from society and ultimately each other. Researchers at the Mental Health Foundation in the UK say the result of this disconnection has given rise to a “Lonely Society” due to a decline of oxytocin, a brain chemical stimulated through in-person contact that enables us to create lasting bonds. But is one really the loneliest number?
These days the word “lonely” seems to be picking up the slack where the mental illness taboo departed. Admitting a sense of loneliness is often akin to admitting personal dysfunction. But loneliness has been linked to suffering and health, the latter developing from a greater understanding of the benefits of togetherness.
Togetherness in the digital era, is it even possible?
- In The Bond: Connecting through the Space Between Us, researcher Lynne McTaggart says reaping the benefits of loneliness is just a matter of reclaiming the true nature of man. “Nature’s most basic drive is not competition, as classic evolutionary theory maintains, but wholeness,” she says. Surprisingly, even Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, a.k.a. the safe haven for the social mantra “survival of the fittest” agrees with McTaggart. The go-to book of human behavior mentioned the famous phrase only twice. Darwin mentioned the significance of love 95 times.
- In the 2011 documentary I AM Director Tom Shadyac says the oxytocin connection between human beings is proof enough that we are built toward cooperation. But for those still bent on holding on to their competitive edge, Shadyac adds the mirror neuron to the mix, a brain system which causes us to literally feel another person’s pain. Learning how to harvest these connections virtually remains one of the larger challenges human beings face in the technological era.
- Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology think they are coming close to creating an oxytocin understudy. Studies examining virtual relationships found that study participants were able to create deeper bonds with their online connections if they could hear their companion’s heartbeat. The effect was similar to that of direct eye contact.
- The greatest tool in reaping the benefits of loneliness still seems to fall to personal perception. Many experts believe the disconnected sensation of loneliness is rooted more in the negative attachment to the word “alone” than scientific fact. Even the smallest structure of matter proves impossible to separate from its neighbors and is difficult to tell with any finality where it ends and another begins.
- When loneliness takes a negative turn, McTaggart suggests focusing on the space between things as a bridge that brings connection, not isolation. “What matters is not the isolated entity, but the space between things, the relationship of things,” she said. “We are inescapably connected from cells to whole societies.”