Social Cravings May Be Similar To Food Cravings, Study Finds

woman laying down on FaceTime

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Key Takeaways

  • Recent evidence suggests that loneliness triggers the same cycle of reward and craving as food.
  • The region of the brain that is stimulated by food cravings is also the part that lights up when we are lonely and crave human interaction.

When you're lonely, it feels bad. But why? A groundbreaking study published last week in Nature Neuroscience tells us that the craving we feel for human companionship starts in the same part of the brain that drives the desire for food.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers focused on the substantia nigra pars compacta and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), a part of the brain that plays a role in both cravings and social bonds. This insight may help us understand why people with depression and social anxiety are prone to loneliness and isolation, and why social interaction is so important to our well-being.

"This is the first study to look at the effects of acute isolation on the brain in humans," study author Livia Tomova, PhD, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, tells Verywell via email. "We found that after fasting, this part of the brain responded in very similar ways to food cues. This makes sense as the SN/VTA is thought to be a 'motivation center' in the brain, meaning that it activates whenever we want something."

The study’s methodology involved isolating 40 people in windowless rooms for 10 hours. In a separate test, they fasted for the same amount of time. After each session, participant’s brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they looked at three kinds of images: happy groups of people, food, or flowers. The same midbrain structure linked to craving lit up when social interaction or food was displayed.

"I think one general takeaway of our study is that it highlights how important being connected with others is for humans," Tomova says. "If one day of being alone makes our brains respond as if we had been fasting for the whole day, it suggests that our brains are very sensitive to the experience of being alone."

Experts think this has big takeaways for mental health.

“This finding legitimizes the real struggles of loneliness,” Kimberly Bender, PhD, MSW, associate dean for doctoral education at the University of Denver, tells Verywell via email. She was not involved with the research. “While many of us experience loneliness or isolation to various degrees, it is fairly taboo to talk about and may be inadvertently dismissed as a fleeting emotion. This study helps us to understand its effects on the brain and connects the instinct many of us feel to want and need social interaction to a craving for food that all human beings can relate to.”

The study points to the fact that basic human needs are fairly universal. “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sees social connection as foundational, only less important than the needs for food, water, and safety. It is not likely to turn off," Bender says. "Even in our own work with young people experiencing homelessness, who have often faced great disruptions to connections in their families and in other social service systems, the search for connection continues. Young people even form street families to replace those connections in meaningful ways."

What This Means For You

While the study looked at the short-term effects of isolation, the results show human connection certainly matters. If you're isolated from friends and family at this time, Zoom and phone calls can go a long way.

Craving Connection During COVID-19

While the study was conducted before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the results are timely.

“Especially in the pandemic, when our social interactions are likely diminished, or at least different, it is critical that we legitimize the significant impact this can have on our brains and on our functioning,” Bender says. “Just as we’ve found ourselves having new food cravings during the stress of the pandemic, we are likely finding ourselves craving meaningful social interaction with friends and family that feel quite distant during this time."

Bender says her own research shows people are finding new ways to fulfill an their social cravings.

"In [my] new study, we’ve found that people are, in part, getting through the pandemic by turning their struggles into contributions that benefit others, making PPE, delivering medications, zoom visits to older adults," she says. "Engaging in mutual aid where people give and receive support from others during this time has created a unique opportunity for meaningful social connection even while apart. This is just one example of how humans are adept at meeting the craving of social interaction even in extreme circumstances.”

While the MIT research looks promising, there is still much to learn. The study was fairly limited in scope. It only included 40 people between the ages of 18 and 40, and more than half of them were women.

Still, it serves as an important reminder to check on your loved ones—and yourself—as social distancing continues.

"While many people are with their families or stay connected over social media, not everybody is able to do that,” Tomova says. “Some people live alone and or might have restricted access to digital technologies. Those people might experience a very extreme version of social distancing which could affect their mental health. I think it is important to pay attention to this social dimension of the current crisis."

1 Source
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  1. Tomova L, Wang KL, Thompson T, et al. Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hungerNature Neuroscience. 2020;23(12):1597-1605.

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.