As a result of the prolonged Covid-19 lockdowns, I have started paying more attention to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It turns out a great deal of fascinating research in neuroscience has been done on loneliness, and its effects on people’s behaviour and motivations. This, incidentally, dovetails with a theory of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, according to whom imposed isolation and loneliness causes people to be more susceptible to ideological dogmas. Could Covid-19 lockdowns worldwide make people more prone to fake news, conspiracy theories and extreme beliefs? It’s at least a possibility worth thinking about. Probably all human feelings have a neurological substratum. Loneliness is no different. In a 2016 study, American researchers identified a cluster of neurons in a brain region in mice called the dorsal raphe nucleus that represents feelings of loneliness and generates a drive for social interaction. This may explain other studies that show humans deprived of social contact may experience emotional distress. Based on their research, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology more recently have identified brain pathways that indicate humans crave social contacts the same way they crave food when hungry. In both kinds of craving, the part of the brain called the substantia nigra, a tiny structure located in the midbrain, was shown by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to be active. Interestingly, both the substantia nigra and dorsal raphe nucleus share the same evolutionary origins in the brain. Their research is published in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience . Pandemic-related stress, isolation driving more to drink Meanwhile, new research by psychologists at Bar-Ilan University in Israel have found that people experience time differently when they are alone and with people. By making more than 1,700 research volunteers write down their solitary and social experience, the researchers found that being with others makes people focus more on the present. When they are alone, they tend to think more about the past and future. Also, they may experience more anxiety and anger with others, but are more prone to sadness when alone. Philosophers from St Augustine to Martin Heidegger have drawn attention to the subjective experience of time; for them, it constitutes the very nature of time. Contemporary neuroscience may be zeroing onto its neurological basis. Liad Uziel, of Bar-Ilan University, theorises that people need a balance of both solitude and sociability to achieve personal growth. “Being alone and being with others are represented in people’s minds as qualitatively different experiences, each contributing to the formation of an integrated self,” he told sciencedaily.com. “One needs a combination of constructive alone and social experiences, as each type of social setting contributes much-needed, unique advantages.” Arendt, one-time student and lover of Heidegger, would agree wholeheartedly. In Heidegger’s terms, past, present and future are modes of being human. But for Arendt, political ideology, which is a collective pathology, focuses on the future to the exclusion of the present. As Samantha Rose Hill, the newest biographer of Arendt, points out in an article in Aeon.com, “ideologies do not explain what is, they explain what becomes”. And rather than being faithful to history or the past, “ideologies are concerned with controlling and predicting the tide of history”, that is, the future. Arendt uses the German word Verlassenheit for loneliness, which has the even heavier connotation of being abandoned, such as being completely lost in the wilderness. The Lonely Century: tackling the modern-day scourge of isolation The unimaginable horror experienced by Christ on the Cross at the last moment as he cried out – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” – is the utter terror of Verlassenheit . Were the Gospels and Psalm 22:1 inadvertent admission of Christ’s last-moment conversion – to atheism? Arendt distinguishes between loneliness and solitude. Reading a book you like is a solitary experience. Solitude is when you can talk and think to yourself. Loneliness is when you can’t even relate to yourself, let alone others. She argues, and contemporary political psychologists have offered empirical evidence, that lonely and isolated individuals are more prone to extremist ideologies, from radical Islam to Incel, “involuntary celibates”, a misogynistic, internet-driven movement where a few individuals have committed mass murders in North America. The ideal subjects prone to political extremism, wrote Arendt, are “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist”. There is no deeper diagnosis of the perniciousness of fake news and conspiracy theories than Arendt’s.