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How the Brain Creates Cravings for Social Intimacy

The same brain regions are responsible for food and intimacy cravings.

Key points

  • Brains evolved to achieve two goals, survival of the individual and procreation of the species.
  • The brain achieves its two principal goals by inducing powerful cravings for palatable food and social intimacy with close others.
  • Two brain regions, the ventral striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, control both vital processes that enhance survival.

All humans, and probably all animals, share the need for a close social connection. We suffer in its absence and thrive when socially fulfilled. The cravings for social intimacy are as powerful and compelling as those for food or drugs of abuse, such as heroin.

Scientists understand the neural mechanisms of food and drug cravings. A recent study investigated the neural mechanisms that underlie the satisfaction associated with fulfilling the need for social connection. The study also assessed whether the simple act of recalling previous experiences of social connection with a close friend could activate similar brain regions and influence our feelings of satisfaction toward that person.

The concept that the brain can crave intimacy is likened to our daily cravings for food. We yearn for tasty food when hungry and feel satisfied after eating. Many recent studies suggest that the brain regions that fulfill the need for social connection may be similar to those that inform us that we are satiated after eating.

Brain imaging studies have consistently implicated two important regions, the ventral striatum (which is part of the classic reward system) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (this region lies on the bottom of the front of the brain just behind the bridge of your nose). When you are hungry the ventral striatum becomes active if you look at pictures of food. After you finish eating, activity in this brain region slows down.

The ventral striatum has a simple role: to convince you to eat. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex monitors the subjective experience of eating. Its activity is correlated with the pleasantness and desirability of the food. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex tells us that we enjoyed eating the food.

These two brain regions are also believed to contribute to social connection with close others. Feelings of loneliness or yearning for a deceased loved one are associated with increased activity in the ventral striatum. In contrast, the experience of a satisfying social connection is associated with greater activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

The current evidence suggests that the ventral striatum initiates your craving for social connection, whereas activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex informs you that you have fulfilled your need for social intimacy. The study also demonstrates that simply recalling past experiences of social intimacy with a close friend is sufficient to fulfill the need for social connection.

The human brain, indeed, the brain of all animals, evolved to achieve two goals—survival of the individual and procreation of the species. The results of this study demonstrate that the brain uses the same structures—the ventral striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—to achieve both goals. These regions evolved to induce our craving for food and positive social interactions with others.

References

Ross, L. P., & Inagaki, T. K. (2022). Recalling prior experiences with a close other can fulfill the need for social connection. Emotion. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0001103

Wenk GL (2019) Your Brain on Food, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press.

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