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Isolation Starves Your Brain

We crave connection like we crave food, because we need both to survive.

Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need food. Similarly, loneliness is your body’s way of telling you that you need connection.

That’s the takeaway from a recent study at MIT that compared people’s brain activity when hungry or isolated.* Volunteers spent 10 hours fasting and then looked at images of their favorite foods while getting an fMRI scan. On a separate day, the same volunteers spent 10 hours alone, with neither in-person nor online interactions, and then looked at images of their favorite social activities while undergoing another fMRI.

The researchers found that both fasting and isolation activated the substantia nigra, an area of the brain that is linked to craving. Study participants who reported more craving for food or connection showed more activation; the hungrier or lonelier, the stronger the neural response.

Overall, this finding suggests that loneliness can be a useful cue. Just as we need to eat to avoid starvation and survive, we need to connect to prevent loneliness and thrive. Our bodies know this intrinsically; the experience of craving is their way of communicating with us and motivating us to take action.

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Satisfy both cravings by eating food with friends!
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However, the duration matters. Temporary hunger is helpful to get us to eat; in contrast, prolonged hunger that turns into starvation can kill us. So it is with disconnection. Temporary loneliness is helpful to get us to fulfill our fundamental need for connection, whereas chronic loneliness can do serious damage.

For instance, people who feel lonely for long periods of time, such as months or years, are more susceptible to negative health outcomes like cognitive decline and heart disease. Lacking close relationships is even associated with a higher risk of dying.

That’s why it’s crucial to prioritize and nurture your social health—the dimension of well-being that comes from relationships and community. Here are some steps you can take.

Doing so is especially important as the pandemic persists and forces extended isolation. Unlike the participants in the study, we do not know when this separation will end. But also unlike participants, we are able to connect remotely using technology and spend time together in quarantine pods.

When you get a craving for connection, be sure to heed it and feed it.

*Note: this study is in pre-print, which means that it’s a preliminary report and has not yet been peer-reviewed.