Hello! Science of socialising

What's going on in the brain when we're chatting to someone else?
20 August 2019

Interview with 

Antonia Hamilton, University College London




What can the socialising brain tell us about loneliness? Katie Haylor spoke with UCL social neuroscience expert Antonia Hamilton...

Antonia - Often what we’re interested in is what's different about when you interact with another person. So then we'll compare that to situations where people are doing the same kind of thing but in a context where they're alone.

Katie - What kind of experiments can you do with people, when they are with other people?

Antonia - It's pretty hard to do traditional brain imaging methods. A lot of our neuroscience comes from MRI scanners but in a scanner you are inherently lonely. You're in a small, dark, noisy, tube and there's normally nobody else in the room and you have to stay completely still apart from pressing a couple of buttons. So it's generally an isolated situation.

Whereas when we want to study face to face interactions we use a newer brain imaging method called functional near infrared spectroscopy and that shines light through your skull - infrared light can get down to the brain surface - and some of the light will come back to our detectors, and we can use that to measure the blood flow in the brain. It’s a hat that you can wear with the sensors in it. And while you're wearing it you can move about. You can talk to people. There's an enormous number of contexts where we can start to study patterns of brain activation that we just wouldn't even be able to consider in an MRI scanner.

Katie - What key areas of the brain are involved in making that connection with another person?

Antonia - So the areas we are most interested in at the moment are commonly called The Theory of Mind network. There's a bit called temporal parietal junction it's just behind your ears and the prefrontal cortex, so right at the front middle just behind your forehead. These areas are engaged when you're thinking about other people, when you're sort of imagining what other people think or judging their personality traits. But we also see these areas are very strongly involved in communicating with other people, we’re hoping to find evidence that this network is particularly important for having strong social connections.

Katie - Do we know much about those areas in lonely people's brains?

Antonia - Not really. Loneliness is quite a long term state. Most of our brain imaging studies are looking at things that you can change on a minute by minute timescale. Whereas loneliness as a sort of state of somebody’s life isn't going to be turned on and off on the kind of timescale that we do for brain imaging studies.

Katie - What particular studies are you doing at the moment?

Antonia - We're very interested in understanding face to face conversations, what happens, and what's different about being with a real person compared to being alone. So we're looking at that quite often in terms of the audience effect. When you're being watched by somebody else your performance changes. But it can change in many different ways, according to the context.

If you're being watched by somebody who's friendly and supportive maybe you're doing something that you're confident with and your performance will get better when you're being watched. But if you feel you're being watched by somebody who's hostile or who's judging you and you're doing something difficult and you're anxious about failing, then your performance may get even worse in the context of being watched.

Katie - It's really interesting that you say that because we're living in an era where you can have virtual face to face communication. Do we know anything about whether that affects the quality of that interaction?

Antonia - We have a study we're getting up at the moment on virtual conversations. Mostly, at least when we’re on a good connection, it'll behave in a very similar way to a real face to face conversation. Challenges come because if you're on FaceTime or Skype for example, eye contact doesn't work in exactly the same way, the place where the camera is is not the same as the place of the person's eyes on the screen. And so you don't quite know if the other person's really looking at you or not. And on as bad connection the timing may be bad. You there's a bit of a delay between what you say and what the other person hears. So the quality of that connection is degraded but people can get the same stuff out of it.

Katie - I think I'm very conscious that we're doing an audio only interview right now. We can't see each other’s faces and I'm wondering if when it comes to making good quality social connections can we say that face to face is just better? Do we know that's the case? Rather than chatting on the phone which is effectively what we're doing right now.

Antonia - I think communication can be very effective on the phone but it largely depends what it is you're trying to communicate. If we were discussing architectural plans that would be much harder over a phone line than when we're discussing general ideas, but we know people are very very flexible in the way that they communicate and if one communication channel is closed down by the situation that you're in, people will just make more use of another one.

Katie - From your perspective as a social neuroscience expert, how do you think better understanding the brain in this context can help people who are lonely? Are there things we can take from learning about social interaction and apply them to help with loneliness?

Antonia - We can take the general idea that social interact it is important, that it's valuable and that it really is worth making an effort to make these social connections. I don't think our social neuroscience research yet has an answer that says “this is the one thing to do”. And certainly we haven't got one pill or drug that's going to fix these things because loneliness is very much arising from context and from the way a person's interacting with the world.

But I hope it helps to at least know that loneliness is real and that it can be worth complaining about, and that it can get better if you try to find ways to connect with other people, and having that social connection really is very valuable.


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