In the eye of the beholder: individual differences in perceived social isolation predict regional brain activation to social stimuli

J Cogn Neurosci. 2009 Jan;21(1):83-92. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21007.


Prior research has shown that perceived social isolation (loneliness) motivates people to attend to and connect with others but to do so in a self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating fashion. Although recent research has shed light on the neural correlates of social perception, cooperation, empathy, rejection, and love, little is known about how individual differences in loneliness relate to neural responses to social and emotional stimuli. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that there are at least two neural mechanisms differentiating social perception in lonely and nonlonely young adults. For pleasant depictions, lonely individuals appear to be less rewarded by social stimuli, as evidenced by weaker activation of the ventral striatum to pictures of people than of objects, whereas nonlonely individuals showed stronger activation of the ventral striatum to pictures of people than of objects. For unpleasant depictions, lonely individuals were characterized by greater activation of the visual cortex to pictures of people than of objects, suggesting that their attention is drawn more to the distress of others, whereas nonlonely individuals showed greater activation of the right and left temporo-parietal junction to pictures of people than of objects, consistent with the notion that they are more likely to reflect spontaneously on the perspective of distressed others.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reference Values
  • Social Isolation / psychology*
  • Social Perception*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology