Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Loneliness Epidemic

You would think it would not be too difficult to see a way out of the impasse. We all understand that loneliness is a significant psychological problem. We also know that 22% of today’s millennials do not have a close friend. 

We should also know that the cure for loneliness is other people. This does not mean, other people via text message. It does not mean going bump in the night. It means being part of a coherent community where people follow the rules, know their roles and function as ethical beings.

And yet, therapy has inveighed against such communities for over a century now. It is surely more the problem than the solution.

So, we have had decades worth of psycho theorizing about God only knows what. People have consumed billions of pills… and we arrive at a point where far too many people are alone and isolated and bereft. Could it be that we have made a mistake? Could it be that our individual centered approach to mental health, coupled with our compulsion to medicate away all emotional distress, has failed miserably?

How bad is it? An excellent National Post story has the news:

In a poll of 20,000 Americans last year, nearly half said they lack companionship or meaningful relationships. One in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Six in 10 Britons recently told pollsters their pet is their closest companion.

So, naturally, researchers are now looking for a pill to cure loneliness. Of course, they deny that they believe that they can find a pill to cure loneliness. At the least, they do not know how to think straight.

Anyway, the National Post explains:

The volunteers at the University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory, all otherwise young and healthy, were tied together by really only one thing: nearly off-the-chart scores on the most widely used scale measuring loneliness.

Asked how often they felt they had no one they could turn to, how often they felt their relationships seemed superficial and forced, how often they felt alone, left out, isolated or no longer closer to anyone, the answer, almost always, was “always.”

One imagines that the volunteers are students. One is horrified to discover that they feel alone and isolated all the time. One is not surprised to discover that their relationships feel superficial and fake. After all, if you grow up in a culture that values hookups, that tells you to expose yourself either over social media or at dinner parties, that offers alcohol and drugs as conversational lubricants, that tells you to feel your feelings and that tells you to be open, honest and shameless… what else would you expect?

Now, researchers at the University of Chicago are going to try to solve the problem with a pill. No kidding:

The volunteers agreed to be randomly dosed over eight weeks with either pregnenolone, a hormone naturally produced by the body’s adrenal gland, or a placebo. Two hours after swallowing the assigned tablet, the university’s researchers captured and recorded their brain activity while the participants looked at pictures of emotional faces or neutral scenes.

Studies in animals suggest that a single injection of pregnenolone can reduce or “normalize” an exaggerated threat response in socially isolated lab mice, similar to the kind of hyper vigilance lonely people feel that makes them poor at reading other people’s intentions and feelings.

Yes, indeed. Biochemistry is the solution, except when it is not the solution. The chemical makes people less afraid to interact with others. And then, so what… if you believe that interaction involves looking at pictures, OK. But the experiment tells them nothing about how to interact with other people.

Anyway, let’s hear them out:

Lead researcher and neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo has likened using a drug to rubbing frost from a windshield. Loneliness increases both a desire to connect with others, and a gut instinct for self-preservation (“if I let you get close to me, you’ll only hurt me, too”). People become more wary, cautious and self-centred. The idea is to help people see things as they are, “rather than being afraid of everyone,” Cacioppo said in an interview with Smithsonian.com.

For some, the idea of a pharmacological buffer against loneliness is just another sign of the creeping medicalization of everyday human woes: Wouldn’t a pill for loneliness only make us more indifferent, more disconnected? Is it really the best we can do to fix the modern world’s so-called epidemic of loneliness?

Why are we having this problem? Perhaps the reason does not lie in brain chemistry? Perhaps we don’t socialize with other people because we do not know how. We live in a multicultural world, and as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam discovered, multiculturalism causes people to hunker down-- to use his phrase.

If we do not know the game or the rules or the players we are less likely to engage. If we do not have a uniform set of manners and customs, we will feel alone and isolated. We will not be encountering fellow citizens, but members of different subgroups, people who are quick to take offense. The problem is not a lack of empathy, but a failure to produce a unified culture.

The National Post emphasizes this point:

The human brain is an incredibly social organ. So much of it is dedicated to creating and nurturing relationships, said neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett. “A great deal of our interactions aren’t for any particular purpose beyond the interaction itself, which cements and enriches social bonds.”

Think of gossip, or chatting, he said. It’s not really so much the actual exchange of information that’s important, Burnett said, but how long we spend gabbing. “We are an intensely social species, arguably the most social of all.”

But, in order to have such interactions, we have to be speaking the same language, even using the same dialect. We must be following one set of rules and must be able to identify each other as friends, not foes.

In the bad old days, communities were smaller. People knew each other, often from birth. And yet, we have overcome those homogeneous communities, communities where culture was uniform and where conformity was the rule. We have become liberated, and we are paying the price.

So says one author:

“The modern nature of work means it’s common to have to chase employment, for companies to pick up sticks and relocate, and people will invariably go where the opportunities are, because they need to, to survive,” he said, adding there are fewer communities of yesteryear, where everyone knows what their role is and who their neighbours are.

Again, Burnett adds, there are many ways in which this is a good thing. “The old communities were undoubtedly restrictive and stifling, especially for women and those lower down the hierarchy who wouldn’t have opportunities to achieve anything beyond suffocating gender roles and restrictions.”

We have been liberated, from roles, from rules, from duties and from our connections with others. Now, we have done away with all roles and we do not know how to interact with others. We do not even know whether we should or should not. If you are celebrating the loss of gender roles, you are part of the problem, not the solution. And if you believe that we have made great progress by overcoming all forms of gender identity, you are contributing massively to our current social disaggregation.

Contemporary thinking does has thrown away the mechanisms that made it possible to socialize. And then, it does not understand why people feel alone, isolated and detached.

Consider this: women have been liberated from the repressive traditional roles of wife and mother. Does this produce waves of good feeling? Not at all. Quite the opposite:

But younger women reported more loneliness in the Angus Reid survey. Perhaps younger women are under the greatest pressure when it comes to societal expectations, Burnett said. Women are expected to look attractive, but not too attractive, “to be self-sufficient but submissive, have kids, but not too early or too late. Engaging with others is a big demand when you’re constantly worried about being judged.”

In other words, we have overcome the repressive ways of the past and replaced them with confusion. Women feel that they need to self-create, even to self-brand, to build themselves as women, much as they would build a work of art. The resulting social chaos is palpable. Clearly, women are not benefitting from the new regime-- consider #MeToo.

Women do not understand what they should or should not do because their overlords and overladies have told them that such roles are bad for them. And yet, in the absence of defined roles, women have been adrift, lost, not knowing what to do or with whom to do it. And dare we add, men are equally confused. They believe that they have been liberated from social constraints... and this makes them boorish and repulsive... when it does not make them predatory.

True enough, some versions of individualism do contribute to loneliness. If you define yourself as independent, autonomous and authentically self-actualized, you are consigning yourself to loneliness.

But, when ideologues blame it on nationalism they are tripping over their own incoherence. If people do not feel like they belong to the same country, to the same nation, they identify as members of different subgroups, tribes or factions, as you will. When they do, in a multicultural paradise, they will hunker down and go online to find a pill to cure loneliness.


trigger warning said...

Had I been Principal "Researcher" for the University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory, I would have chosen pictures of cute bunnies and stills from old Bela Lugosi movies, combined with laboratory tokens that participants could use to buy organic FreeTrade dried apricots, as a more ecologically valid proxy for social interaction.

Favorite quote: "The old communities were undoubtedly restrictive and stifling, especially for women and those lower down the hierarchy [i.e., the lumpenproletariat]..." By inference, the patriarchs of the "Old Communities" were idle satraps feeding off the milk and honey produced by the oppressed.

sestamibi said...

"Pregnenolone"??!? Is this a Babylon Bee story or what?

UbuMaccabee said...

I would suggest that millennials might find friendship among NPC relationships in video games. But however the conversation develops, it always ends the same: “orange man bad.”

Walt said...

1) Social media: for those who grew up on it, "other people" are just text on a screen, photos of genitals, or things to shoot in a game. 2) Battle of the sexes turned to full scale war: told, unrealistically, that there are no differences; told, in reverse, that the opposites are both toxic and hostile. 3) Politics: in which the other half of the country (whichever half you're in) is dangerous and evil. 4) Identity politics: in which people of other races, religions, or ages (old/young) are the enemy out to get you and 5) Legal intolerance: in which people who smoke cigarettes are not just "denormalized" but barred from public (and, increasingly, private) life.