Solitude vs. Loneliness: A case study of affective states

As an academic, I spend a significant amount of time by contemplating about questions and issues of the world, more often flying solo rather than not. It is one of the great paradoxes of science and discovery — the painted image of a scientist and thinker analyzing and thinking (sometimes in angst and sometimes with passionate curiosity) — requiring both the emptiness to be creative but also relying on the input and knowledge from others who have preceded them. Over the years, as I’ve spent more time in isolation and surrounded by my own thoughts, I find it fascinating that I have become more aware that I frequently fluctuate between feelings of loneliness and feelings of solitude. It is interesting in that on the surface, painting an image of an individual in either of these conditions would not look very different. You could imagine like a painter in a field or a hiker in the middle of an empty forest. Without knowing the individual in this caricature one might have difficulty discerning between these two states, even though they are fundamentally and vastly different.

So what it is then, that makes these two states so starkly different? Loneliness describes a typically negative emotion, in which the individual is aware of the one-ness and feels distance from others in the world (whether physically or socially). An individual in the middle of a crowded room could feel “lonely,” due to the lack of social connectedness to others in the room, perhaps. Solitude, on the other hand, describes a cognitive and emotional state in which the individual is almost at peace with their separation from others in the world and/or environment. An individual in solitude is still aware of their one-ness, but does not have the negative emotion associated with loneliness, rather, the solitude individual is almost arguably experience positive emotion from escaping from the social connections of the world and reflecting on their current present state.

The puzzling question, however, is this: how can the same individual experience one state of the other (or even switch between the two), being in the same exact circumstance? Is it a cognitive thought or neural signal that suppresses or modify our emotional states to reflect a more desirably affective state? Do we pursue solitude as a coping mechanism simply because we wish to avoid the aversive state of being lonely? If it is so easily controlled, then what is the mechanism (both neural and computational) by which we can achieve this amazing feat so effortlessly (or perhaps not so effortlessly, but with sufficient mindfulness training of some sort?).

As a researcher who studies cognitive control, I would imagine that this ability must require some type of cognitive bias that is used to alter and modulate our emotional states. Whether it is something like cognitive reappraisal or emotion regulation, it is amazing to me that not only can humans discern between complex affective states, but also have contain the ability to seamlessly transition between them. By the definitions I’ve presented them above, it seems that one cannot exist without the other (or least if there is a spectrum between loneliness and solitude, that one must dominate), and yet it is unknown how the controller is able to discern when to influence and modulate one affective state or the other. In the cognitive control literature, one of the biggest unanswered questions is that of the homunculus problem — that is, how do a bunch of “dumb” parts act in synchrony and coordinate complex temporally extended goals? Many have published various computational models with hypotheses regarding how this mechanism arises in goal pursuit, but something that seems to be missing from the equation (at least from my perspective), is the inclusion of affect. What makes us unique and human, to be frank, and not just cyborgs, is that we have the capacity to feel and express emotion in a manner that is hardwired into our system. But how these affective signals combine with constructs devoid of affect like “cognitive control” remain to be understood. And furthermore, it is still a puzzle as to how these signals organize in the first place — is this there a topology and hierarchical organization of control? Is there more than just the hierarchical organization, and is there more information that is encoded in the map beyond just the temporal abstract of knowledge that enables us to perform these actions flexibly? (As an aside, neural maps are very compelling and I should probably spend another blog post on cognitive maps alone). But regardless of how the brain is structured, a compelling question remains: how are humans able to implement such control modulate our affective states.

Those who are dualists may argue that this ability stems from some spiritual aspect of humanity that most closely relates to the soul, although that will open another can of worms that is beyond the scope of this spontaneous blog post. So it remains to be a puzzling question that I will continue to contemplate, as to understand how our cognitive abilities are able to control our emotions without cues from the external world.

As an aside, and after a brief google scholar search, there appears to be an article by Jan Szczepański published in 1977 on this topic specifically, though it is housed in a more humanities focused journal with a philosophical tilt. We’ll see if I can download the article when I have access, but it is a fascinating topic. And shall hopefully be continued as I ponder of into slumber.


Author: Debbie

Cognitive Neuroscientist (in training).

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