The desire for social interaction activates the brain like a craving for food •


The desire for social interaction triggers the same neural activity as a desire to eat, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study found that after a single day of isolation, the sight of a fun social interaction stimulates the same region of the brain that is activated when you are hungry and see a picture of food.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions the same way a hungry person craves food,” said Professor Rebecca Saxe, lead author of the study. “Our finding fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need, and acute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to fix what is lacking, such as hunger.”

The investigation was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2018 and 2019. The study is part of a larger research program focused on how social stress can affect behavior.

In 2016, a previous MIT study identified a cluster of neurons in the brains of mice that represented feelings of loneliness and triggered the desire for social interaction after isolation.

“We wanted to see if we could experimentally induce a certain type of social stress, where we would have control over what social stress was,” Prof Saxe said. “It’s a stronger social isolation intervention than anyone has tried before.”

For the current study, participants were confined to a windowless room on the MIT campus for 10 hours where they were not allowed to use their phones except to contact researchers.

“We used a whole bunch of interventions to make sure it would be really weird, different and isolated,” Prof Saxe said. “They had to let us know when they were going to the bathroom so that we could make sure they were empty. We delivered food to the door then texted them when she was there so they could pick her up. They really weren’t allowed to see people.

Prior to the trial, participants were trained on how to enter an MRI machine so that they could do so after 10 hours of isolation.

“Normally getting someone into an MRI machine is actually a really social process. We engage in all kinds of social interactions to make sure people understand what we ask of them, that they feel safe, that they know we are there, ”explained Prof Saxe. “In this case, the subjects had to do everything on their own, while the researcher, who was dressed and masked, remained silent and watched.”

In a separate phase of the trial, participants fasted for 10 hours and experts performed brain scans immediately after. All scans were performed while individuals viewed images of food, flowers, or people interacting and socializing.

The scan focused on a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, a tiny structure in the midbrain that was previously linked to cravings for food and drugs. As the researchers predicted, when socially isolated subjects saw photos of people enjoying social interactions, the “signals of envy” were produced in their substantia nigra. The extent of activity in this region of the brain was found to correlate with how patients rated their cravings for food or social interaction.

Moreover, the strength of the desire for social interaction depended on the social habits of an individual. Those who reported being isolated or alone in the months leading up to the study showed lower cravings for social interaction.

“For people who reported that their lives were really filled with satisfying social interactions, this intervention had a greater effect on their brains and on their self-evaluations,” said Prof Saxe. She said that based on their findings, researchers can now try to answer many more questions, such as how social isolation affects behavior and motivation.

The study is published in the journal Neuroscience of nature.

Through Chrissy sexton, Editor-in-chief

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