Earlier this year, Jyoti Mishra, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues and myself, published a paper that described how specific regions of the brain respond to emotional stimuli related to loneliness and wisdom in opposing ways.
Participants performed a simple cognitive task (they determined which direction an arrow was pointing on a computer screen) while human faces depicting different emotions appeared in the background. The participants also performed assessments to measure their levels of loneliness and wisdom.
We found that when the background faces emoted anger, lonelier individuals paid more attention to the threatening stimuli and their cognitive responses were slower. Conversely, wiser individuals who were less lonely performed the simple cognitive task more quickly when the background consisted of happy faces.
Interestingly, EEGs conducted during the tests showed that a key region of the brain processed visual information differently for the two groups. The temporal-parietal junction (TPJ) integrates information coming from both external and internal sources. This is where theory of mind (ToM) originates, or more simply, your sense of understanding others’ mental states.
In lonelier participants, the TPJ was more active when they saw angry faces. In wiser people, it was more active in the presence of happy faces.
We also saw greater activity to threatening stimuli among lonelier individuals in the left superior parietal cortex, the brain region important for allocating attention, while in wiser people there was enhanced happy emotion-driven activity in the left insula of the brain, responsible for social characteristics like empathy and compassion.