Why we do what we do – the research

By Helen Boulton
National Chatty Ambassador

Following on from my last article, I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of why humans actually feel lonely and why we seem to have this inner drive to connect with other people. I think that this is particularly pertinent now after we have all been through lockdowns as a result of which most of us, if not all of us, have experienced some feelings of loneliness.

For millennia, humans have lived and operated in social groupings. If you stop and think about it for a moment, you can see just how our lives are built around community and connection from the way that we tend to live in social groupings, through to the way that we work and socialize together in groups large or small. Even the great Greek philosopher Aristotle once wrote that “man is by nature a social animal.”
So, it stands to reason that if you take away those social connections and community, humans feel lonely. Indeed, researchers have concluded that the loneliness that humans feel is “a natural phenomenon” ¹ . Loneliness does not discriminate either. It can affect anyone “regardless of gender, age or other socio-demographic characteristics.” ²

At the time that Aristotle made his observations (around 300 BC) he was commenting on the benefits of human beings living together in civilized societies rather than on anything physiological. Whilst we know that Aristotle’s observations have proven to be correct, it’s only been in very recent years that we have been able to study the actual hard wiring of the human brain in relation to loneliness. Coupled with a developed understanding of human evolution, researchers are now beginning to explain actually why loneliness is such a universal human emotion – one that appears to be hard baked into us.

Our ancestors began life as essentially solitary foragers who were active mainly at night. Around 52 million years ago, a major change occurred in this behaviour and they became instead much more active during the day. This meant that our ancestors lost the protection that darkness afforded them. They became more vulnerable to attack by predators. However, there was safety in numbers. Researchers have concluded therefore that social bonding began as a way to combat this new threat. Living together in groups offered a number of other advantages in addition to providing better defences against rivals and predators. Food sources could be found more easily when there were larger numbers searching. And increased numbers meant that those precious sources could be protected more easily. There were reproductive advantages too – a larger group offered the ability to find a more suitable mate.

Living in groups also required the ability to be able to communicate effectively. With bigger brains than other primates, our ancestors were able to develop the language and communication skills that they needed to facilitate this type of living. Group living allowed the young the time that they required to learn these complex physical and social skills from their elders in relative safety. And in difficult times, the older members of the group could teach others how to access difficult or unusual food resources which could be the difference between survival or death.

Our ancestors also began to divide labour. So for example those who were better able to hunt went to find food whilst those who were better able to look after the young and the vulnerable stayed behind to protect these members of the group. Indeed, evolutionary research has revealed that it was this division of labour amongst the group that was adopted by our ancestors more than any other primate group. It became one of the key drivers for living in social groups. Gradually this was hardwired into our ancestors’ brains and ultimately into those of modern day humans.

Given that we have literally evolved into being social creatures, it’s no wonder that if a person loses the ability or opportunity to connect, communicate and be a part of community, feelings of loneliness and social isolation occur. Connection with others is part of being a human and if we create societies where that need is not met, there will inevitably be detrimental consequences and it is these consequences that I will explore further in my next article.

Visit our Research page to explore more about the scientific research behind Chatty Cafe.

1. Yanguas J, Pinazo-Henandis S, Tarazona-Santabalbina FJ. The complexity of loneliness. Acta Biomed. 2018 Jun 7;89(2):302-314. doi: 10.23750/abm.v89i2.7404. PMID: 29957768; PMCID: PMC6179015.

2. Yanguas J, Pinazo-Henandis S, Tarazona-Santabalbina FJ. The complexity of loneliness. Acta Biomed. 2018 Jun 7;89(2):302-314. doi: 10.23750/abm.v89i2.7404. PMID: 29957768; PMCID: PMC6179015.

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