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The Craving to Refill Our "Social Reward Tank"

Why do we need human social connection even during the pandemic?

Currently, many of us are "social distancing" as we voluntarily exclude ourselves from our normal daily social interactions. As a result, many of us feel as though something in our lives is missing. As a highly social species, we find ourselves desperately craving social interaction in this new normal we find ourselves in. A simple hand wave reciprocated by a neighbor across the street, a phone call, or Zoom session with others is more rewarding than ever before.

In many ways, one can draw a parallel to homeostatic processes in the brain to explain why we crave social interaction during the difficult time of COVID-19. Let's consider eating as an example. When we are not satisfied after eating, our brain signals us to seek out and consume more food. There is a "set point" regulated by our hypothalamus, just like temperature control in your home set to at a certain temperature, that detects the offset (or error) and drives us to increase our food intake to restore to that set point. Conversely, if we eat past the point of satiety, the hypothalamus will regulate ourselves to reduce food intake to get back to again restore to the set point. A more dramatic example can be found in drug addiction—if you are addicted, the reward-related structures in the brain will motivate you to consume the drug again to reach the state of being high.

From rawpixel, image 468478
Social reward tank requires refilling
Source: From rawpixel, image 468478

Our craving for social interaction comes down to refilling the reward we derive from social interaction, or "social reward," when it becomes lower than normal. It is as if we have a social reward tank that must be filled to a certain level for us to feel normal. When a serious pandemic like COVID-19 occurs and prevents typical social interactions, our social reward tanks become low, even for certain individuals who prefer to keep that tank at a lower level than others—a lower "social set point." We thus have an intrinsic motivational drive to increase that level to be higher.

As a result, we may seek out social interaction, however artificial it may be, through chats, phone calls, and virtual interactive sessions. This activity can be with people we care about or strangers alike—both will satisfy our need for social reward. In other words, social reward operates like a homeostatic process, similar to other rewards such as food and drugs, where our brain will continue to drive us to meet the criterion or threshold that we have set through our experience or genetic makeup.

It is not surprising that maintaining the right level of social interaction, whatever your set point may be, is essential to the maintenance of mental health. Numerous research has shown that social isolation leads to a greatly decreased ability to manage stress by the brain, social deficits, and other psychopathological consequences. Given what our world is going through, it is important for us to try to connect with others, even with strangers, to ensure that our social reward tank does not get dried out. We should, therefore, continue to virtually connect with others as much as possible, even for a short minute. It is also particularly important to reach out to those who are alone because the baseline level of social interaction for those individuals is the lowest.