Although he dutifully rehashes the literature on sociability, Cacioppo is at his best when he gets out of the lab—in one case, to a Chicago lakefront to show passersby photographs from space, where he finds that the lonely are more likely to attribute human intentions to clouds of interstellar gas. Another experiment suggests that lonely people will accept unfair treatment that others will not.
After learning that 60 million Americans are suffering from this hidden epidemic and hearing Cacioppo argue that it should not be lumped in with depression, one might expect him to propose that psychiatrists make room for loneliness in their catalogue of mental disorders. But, strangely, Cacioppo backtracks when he admits that persistent loneliness is not its own disorder but a normal risk of being human.
Cacioppo seems comfortable with the idea that chronic and painful isolation will always be with us, quoting allegorist C. S. Lewis, who once wrote that “as soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness.” Iacoboni appears to disagree. “We have evolved to connect deeply with other human beings,” he argues in a final chapter. “Our awareness of this fact can and should bring us even closer to one another.”
They may both be right. Our species has a natural gift for mimicry that allows us to enter into one another’s minds effortlessly. We also have a craving for contact that makes us vulnerable not only to one another but to our own solitude. The instinct to connect comes with an addiction to company. For better or worse, we are born with both.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "MIND Reviews".