The Science of Solitude: How Your Brain Works When You’re Alone

Being social and connected with others is in our DNA, but there is also a benefit of spending time alone. Here’s how embracing solitude can improve our brain health, mood, and overall wellbeing.

The Science of Solitude: How Your Brain Works When You’re Alone
How many times have you had plans cancelled and you’re secretly happy about it? Sometimes your brain is telling you to slow down - and you should listen to it. In a society that values connectedness, solitude may seem like a luxury, or even an inconvenience. Yet, science tells us that spending time alone and embracing boredom can significantly improve our brain health, mood, and overall well-being.

What happens to your brain when you’re alone?

When we disengage from the social world and embrace solitude, our brains undergo some intriguing changes. One study found that solitude sparks activity in the brain's Default Mode Network. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a set of interconnected regions that are active when we're unfocused on the outside world. Our brains make connections with existing information when our minds are wandering freely with no distraction. Activating this ‘default mode’ is the reason we get our best ideas in the shower.
When you’re alone (and offline), you also are unconcerned about what others think of you - known as the ‘spotlight effect’. This is the mental phenomenon where people believe they’re being noticed more than they. When you’re away from others, you don’t tend to worry about this as much and just be as you are.
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Of course, everyone experiences solitude differently. Sometimes it might exactly what we need, and on other days it might not be so kind to us. There is an element of difficulty for humans to be on their own - it can feel very uncomfortable, and prolonged periods of solitude can impact us negatively. So listen to your mind. The goal is positive solitude - so embrace it when it feels right or you need to recharge your batteries.

What are the benefits of solitude?

Whilst we’re social creatures that crave human connection, there are a lot of benefits to being alone sometimes.
  1. Boosted Memory Stimulation of the DMN during solitude improves memory performance. This means your recollection of events, facts, and experiences is enhanced when you spend some quality time alone.
  1. Enhanced Creativity Solitude, coupled with the activation of the DMN, offers the perfect environment for your creative thoughts to flourish. So if you're stuck on a problem or searching for a spark of inspiration, some alone time might be just what you need.
  1. Improved Empathy The introspective time spent in solitude can lead to a better understanding of one's own emotions, which in turn helps in developing empathy towards others. This might come as a surprise, but spending time alone can actually improve your social skills. (Did you know that reading fiction can also boost your empathy?)
  1. Better Mood and Reduced Stress As counterintuitive as it might sound, solitude can actually improve our mood.One study indicates that individuals who enjoy their own company exhibit better life satisfaction and lower levels of stress. Being alone provides a breather, a chance to recharge our mental batteries, and return to our social circles rejuvenated and more emotionally balanced.
Engaging our DMN through solitude can help us boost our memory, enhance creativity, and improve empathy towards others. In fact, solitude provides an opportunity for self-discovery and a clearer understanding of our emotions. This increased emotional intelligence further enhances our personal relationships when we plug back into the social world.
Here’s to embracing a regular dose of solitude. Solitude doesn’t have mean cutting off from the world; instead, it's about fostering a deeper connection with yourself. And, as this connection strengthens, you'll discover that you can navigate the world with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and purpose. Remember, solitude isn't about being anti-social, but about being pro-self.

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