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What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Tackling loneliness in a modern world

Robots to ease loneliness
It's a habit
Creative loneliness
What is loneliness?
Link with Alzheimer's 
See also
Robots could someday ease our loneliness
by Mallika Rao Feb 5, 2008

Lonely people often see pets and gadgets as having human qualities.

Social scientists at the University of Chicago and Harvard University found that the chronically lonely and people induced into loneliness are more likely to anthropomorphize -- or make human -- animal and and inanimate objects.

This could confirm an assumption roboticists and artificial intelligence (AI) scientists have made for years – that humans can see objects as friends.

“One of the goals of AI from the early days was the notion of creating artificial presences that would actually be able to be there for people and help them in their lives,” said Kristian Hammond, co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University.

If the loneliness study’s findings are any indication, that goal is aligned with human nature.

“When you’re hungry, you seek out food,” said Nicholas Epley, associate professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Chicago business school, and a lead author of the study.  “When people are lonely, they make up people.”

Study participants were asked to describe animals and gadgets using a list of words given to them.  Those who were lonely favored adjectives like “compassionate” or “friendly” – qualifiers of typically human behavior – over objective descriptors like “active.”  Lonely people were also more likely to believe in God or to assign divine agency to objects and events.

“What’s interesting about the work by Epley and his colleagues is what it says about the human condition and just how much we need to love things,” said Wendi Gardner, a psychology professor at Northwestern.  “The fact that adults are able to attach to these imaginary friends says something profound.”

Robots that help out
The study comes at a time when sophisticated robots are entering mainstream use.  Toys like the Pleo – a baby camarosaurus dinosaur designed to express the spontaneous emotions and reactions a living dinosaur might have – require personalities in order to be entertaining.  But even functional products like the Clocky – an alarm clock programmed to jump off a nightstand and hide – benefit from being personable, says Clocky creator Gauri Nanda.

“With really any product there’s sort of an emotional connection that actually makes it more valuable to the person,” she said.  Clocky’s success is partially due to its ability to endear itself to its owner as a pet might, she said.

The connection between a robot’s sociability and its effectiveness is well-documented.  Dieters who used Autom, a weight-loss coach robot designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had more success than they did going it alone.  Autom relates emotionally to its owner, interacting energetically if daily diet goals are met, and sluggishly if not.

Similarly, the chronically lonely could someday accomplish tasks with robot companions they couldn’t do by themselves.

“The notion of this has been around for a long time,” said Gardner, whose work examines people's connections with media characters. “The genesis of our work came from looking at elderly shut-ins and their attachment to newscasters,” a phenomenon as old as television, she said.

That newscaster role could someday be fulfilled by robots like the Nurse Bot, a robot designed to help the elderly with medical and daily tasks.

But before meaningful relationships between robots and humans can occur, much work has to be done, cautioned Ian Horswill, a computer science professor at Northwestern.

“We’re still working on making robots move through a room without bumping into things,” he said.  “There are a lot of issues that need to get worked out before things like social cognition happen.”

And, he said, people may not jump at the prospect of having a robot as a friend.  “Relatively few people are going to go out to buy a robot because they’re thinking, ‘I’m lonely.’  On the other hand, they might buy a robot for other reasons and then become attached to it.”

Today, few robots combine functionality and emotional capability, Horswill said, but as the field continues to grow, that could soon change.  And the prospect should be exciting rather than threatening, he said.

“Nobody’s going to come out and say I want to make a system to replace humans, because nobody wants to replace humans.  But to help people who are lonely, to act as therapy, a lot of us are interested in that.”


Loneliness is a habit
Daily Times Pakistan 28 Jan 2008

The habit of keeping ourselves isolated from people living around us is known as an act of ‘loneliness’.

A person cannot live through-out his life alone, and if he does, he is not called a normal person, except when he is forced to live alone, and punished like a prisoner.

Some people want to be left alone. They find peace in it, but when this feeling comes to an optimum level, it might be dangerous.

As Elbert Hubbard quotes, “One can endure sorrow alone but it takes two to be glad”.

In some situations, when a person is among people but he still feels he is alone. That is when the person doesn’t know anyone around or he himself does not want to know them.

To some extent staying alone and spending some time with ourselves is a good thing. It gives us an opportunity to look into our inner personality,habits, achievements and imperfections. One should remain isolated sometimes, but this isolation should be balanced, not adopted.

One another type of loneliness is named, ‘solitary confinement’ in which a person leaves people around him, and keeps contact with God only. In such a situation, people go far into the forests and isolated places for the inner world and spiritual development, which is not bad. Noble people and saints adopt such practices to purify their souls.

Loneliness is caused by many reasons.Some people naturally like living alone.They do not feel comfortable among people. Old age is another factor when a person cannot cope with the fast living society due to his old age. He is left in solitary and it becomes his routine.

Some people have no relatives or they live far from them. They do not adjust themselves with people living around them. This becomes their habit and gradually they get use to living like this.

Having no siblings is another factor causing loneliness. Some times it happens that, there is a single child, in such circumstances he is isolated from the society,which puts a bad effect. One should look into his personality and examine his activities. If he sees the element of isolation he should try to increase his social gatherings and vice versa. There should be a balance because excess of anything is bad. As Aristotle says, “ Man is a social animal.” app


Creative Loneliness

Much has been written about the likeness of the movie version of Superman to Jesus Christ. Superman is an alien from the destroyed planet Krypton and the only son of a famous scientist there, sent to earth with the mission to be the saviour of the world. The theme should already sound a note of familiarity to Christians, and indeed many others familiar with the story of Jesus Christ, God’s only son. Some of the leitmotifs that run through the latest of the Superman movies “Superman Returns” seem more than mere coincidence. The voice of his father that perpetually haunts Superman are: “You are not one of them and you will never be”; “Sometimes you will feel like an outcast but you will never be alone”; “The son becomes the father and the father the son” etc, all have such strong biblical ring in them, that it is impossible to imagine the creators of the comic strip character, but more so those of the movie versions of the same character, did not have Jesus Christ in mind when they went about their job. Not just Superman, but it is indeed fascinating to note how many comic strip characters are actually model on immortal themes.

Be that what it is, but we are more interested not just in the loneliness of the Superman character but many famous artists before him. They were not obsessed with Christ per se, but with the loneliness of Christ. For this loneliness is one born out of a sublime sense of superiority rather than the usual self alienation that results from an overriding feeling of inferiority to the world around. Many famous European painters, including Paul Gauguin, a contemporary and friend of Vincent Van Gogh, was one who was wont to either liken his self portrait to the intensely lonely face of Christ, or to add features of his own face to the suffering visage of Christ on the cross. Gauguin incidentally is the man on whose tortured life writer Somerset Maugham based his famous novel “Moon and Sixpence”. Here was a man who abandoned the material comfort of an affluent home and well paying profession as a stock broker, to chase his dream of owning the moon, is what the romanticised portrait of the painter that Maugham sketched had to say, and beautifully too. The artist’s loneliness is a different kind of loneliness. His suffering is also a different kind of suffering. He does not think or see like everybody else, hence he cannot be one with them although one of them. Like Superman, he is destined to feel like an outcast, although never alone. All of these senses of suffering amidst plenty seem to be in some ways or the other, derivatives of the sense of the sublime loneliness of Christ of the Bible (as opposed to Christ of historical fictions like “The Da Vinci Code”).

Christ too was born amongst humans but cannot be a human. He is God’s Son, and the Son is the Father and the Father the Son. He cannot possibly be merry making, flirting, bingeing, cracking jokes, partying occasionally etc, like all ordinary humans do, therefore he is destined to be lonely – quite unlike the Hindu Gods, Krishna to be precise. The conceptualisation of divinity is so starkly different.

The loneliness of Christ, we would say is the ideal, awesome loneliness. A sense of this comes across strongly even in Superman’s loneliness, and so also of many artists. Often however, this loneliness can degenerate and manifest as a neurosis. This is disturbingly visible in the works of another famous Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, especially in his celebrated painting “The Scream”. Munch however kept his own loneliness distinct from the possibility of where this loneliness can lead his life to, and thus maintained sanity. Vincent Van Gogh was radically different.

In one of his intense moments of aloofness and self-exile, he ended up cutting off an ear. At another, he committed suicide. Loneliness for him was like a passionate energy beyond his control that gripped and wrung his soul, and this intensity is evident in all of his works, including in many self portraits. Even the bunch of ordinary flowers in his timeless masterpiece “Sunflowers”, shrivelled and dried as they were had this quality. Lot many such flowers probably would have ended up in the dustbin in most households. But the artist identified his loneliness in them and under the master’s treatment they transformed and came to be in possession of this same passionate and almost cosmic energy. A work of art was born.


What is loneliness?

According to the Existentialist, a human being's existence is a lonely existence.  At the end of the day, we are all alone.  Can anyone ever truly understand what it is to be you, to experience all the things you have experienced, to understand your joys and happiness, your pains and sorrows?  Surely we can talk to other people about how we feel, we can draw pictures, we can play music, but all this attempt to communicate ultimately leaves something behind.  We cannot always get our feelings, ideas or experiences across exactly.  There is a painful reality that ultimately we are alone, by ourselves, and ultimately lonely.

Some people are better at alleviating their loneliness than other people, at hiding their monadic existence than others.  For them, loneliness is a fleeting feeling that visits them on cold winter days or cold gloomy rainy days when human contact becomes minimal and they are left only with the thoughts in their heads.  For others, loneliness is a curse, a shadow that follows them all the time, that rears its ugly head at every human contact, that surrounds them in their waking and in their dreams.

Whether we would like to agree with it or not, loneliness is a universal phenomenon, it visits every human soul at some time in every culture, every race, every class, every age, and at all times in human history. It is inescapable, and has been expressed throughout the ages in  music, literature and art.  To feel lonely is to join the rest of humanity in acknowledging that we are somehow fundamentally separated from each other, doomed to speak and yet never fully understood.  Not only is loneliness so pervasive, but it has been associated with a variety of different emotions. 

People who feel lonely describe it as painful, and it is associated very strongly with feelings of depression, suicide, low self-esteem and aggression.  Being lonely for too long may not be a good thing.  And while we suffer a monadic existence, we are social animals, needing each other, to bond, to connect, to love.  It is the paradox of human existence to seek to fill a need that can never be satisfied, to fill the vortex of loneliness in our lives.

So what is loneliness?  Is it a feeling? A condition? For different people, it means different things.  It is hard to describe exactly what it is, or how come we feel this way.  Perhaps a better question is "what is loneliness for you?" 

Lonely People More Likely to Believe in Supernatural
By Andrea Thompson Jan 24, 2008

People who feel lonely are more likely to believe in the supernatural, whether that is God, angels or miracles, a new study finds.

Humans have evolved as social creatures, so loneliness cuts to the quick.

Living in groups was critical to the survival and safety of our ancient ancestors, and "complete isolation or ostracism has been tantamount to a death sentence," said University of Chicago researcher Nicholas Epley, who led the study.

While group living isn't critical to survival in the modern world, feeling socially connected is. Feeling isolated and lonely is a very painful emotional state for people, Epley said, and can lead to ill health, both physically and mentally.

"Being socially isolated is just not good for you," he said.

When people feel lonely, they may try to rekindle old friendships, seek out new ones or, as Epley's study suggests, they may create social connections by anthropomorphizing nearby gadgets, such as computers or cars, pets, or by believing in supernatural events or religious figures.

In their study, detailed in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, Epley's team tried to induce feelings of loneliness in people to see how it affected how they thought of pets and their belief in religious figures.

In one experiment, college undergraduates were shown movie clips and told to try and empathize with the protagonist as best they could, in order to set them in one of three emotional states.

One group was shown a clip from "Cast Away," the movie in which the main character played by Tom Hanks is deserted on a remote island, in order to induce a feeling of isolation.

The second group was shown a clip from the crime thriller "The Silence of the Lambs" to promote a sense of fear.

A third, control group was shown a clip from the sports comedy feature film "Major League."

All three groups were then asked to describe a pet they owned or knew well and pick three traits from a list that best described them.

The list included anthropomorphic traits that related to social connections (thoughtful, sympathetic) and simple behavioral descriptions (aggressive, energetic, fearful).

Participants from the loneliness group were more likely to describe the pet using the anthropomorphic descriptions than those in the fear or control groups.

All three groups were also asked to rate their belief in ghosts, angels, the devil, miracles, curses, and God, and again, those in the loneliness group reported stronger belief in these supernatural agents.

Future predictions
In another part of their study, Epley and his colleagues asked participants from the University of Chicago to fill out a personality questionnaire and were then told that the answers would be fed to a computer which would generate a future-life prediction for them.

Half of the participants were read statements implying they would be lonely later in life, while the other half were told they would be socially connected for the rest of their lives.

"We tried to manipulate their loneliness, to make them feel lonely," Epley said.

The participants were then asked to rate their belief in the same supernatural agents in the other study, and those in the "lonely group" reported stronger belief than those in the "connected group."

The results were also compared to ratings the participants gave before they got their life predictions, and those who reported a belief in God before and were made to feel lonely reported a stronger belief after the experiment.

"We found that inducing people to feel lonely made them more religious essentially," Epley told LiveScience, though he notes it won't cause any sudden conversions.

Health benefits
Owning pets and religious beliefs and practices are both known to increase a person's sense of well-being, but why exactly that is isn't well known, Epley said.

Epley and his colleagues plan to probe the issue further to see if anthropomorphizing pets or believing in anthropomorphized supernatural agents is what is responsible for alleviating feelings of loneliness.

If it is, it could provide alternate means for people to feel socially connected when connecting to humans isn't an option.

"There are health benefits that come from being connected to other people, and those same benefits seem to come from connection with pets and with religious agents, too," Epley said.


Loneliness link with Alzheimer's 
BBC 6 Feb 2007
Social isolation has previously been linked to Alzheimer's disease

People who are lonely are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, a large US study has suggested.

The findings come from a study of more than 800 elderly patients, who were followed over a four-year period.

Social isolation has already been shown to be linked to dementia but this is the first time researchers have looked at how alone people actually felt.

Writing in Archives of General Psychiatry, the researchers said the reason for the link was not yet clear.

Study leader Professor Robert Wilson and colleagues assessed participants loneliness by asking people to rate from one to five whether they agreed with certain statements related to loneliness on an annual basis.

Questions posed to those being studied included "I experience a general sense of emptiness" and "I often feel abandoned".

People in the study were also assessed for signs of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

And autopsies were carried out on 90 patients who died during the study to look for certain physical signs associated with Alzheimer's disease such as deposits of protein outside and around nerve cells.

The team found that the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease increased by 51% for each point of the loneliness score.

Those with the highest loneliness score of 3.2 had about 2.1 times the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease compared to those with a low score of 1.4.

When the researchers factored in social isolation, such as if people had a small social network, the results did not change significantly.

However there was no association between loneliness and the brain pathology associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Physical impact
Professor Wilson, professor of neuropsychology at Rush University Medical Centre said: "There are two ideas that we should take away, number one is it suggests that loneliness really is a risk factor and secondly in trying to understand that association we need to look outside the typical neuropathology."

He said the results ruled out the possibility that loneliness is a reaction to dementia.

It may be that loneliness may affect systems in the brain dealing with cognition and memory, making lonely people more vulnerable to effects of age-related decline in neural pathways, he suggested.

"We need to be aware that loneliness doesn't just have an emotional impact but a physical impact," he said.

Rebecca Wood chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust said: "This is an impressive study. It follows a large group of people for a significant period of time and comes up with startling findings that back up earlier studies examining social interaction and Alzheimer's risk.

"What I find particularly interesting about this study is the fact that it is an individual's perception of being lonely rather than their actual degree of social isolation that seems to correlate most closely with their Alzheimer's risk."

Dr Susan Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society agreed: "The study demonstrates a clear link between less social activity and a higher risk of dementia symptoms.

"However, it is interesting that the people who died during the study and had demonstrated symptoms of dementia did not have relatively more physical signs of Alzheimer's disease in the brain.

"More research is needed to understand the exact link between loneliness and dementia symptoms."

See also
Ageing and alone
Emotion robots learn from people
Alone at Christmas: solo and the not so low
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

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