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The Need for Food and Need for Social Interaction Show Similar Reactions in the Brain

  • January 26, 2021
  • Patients and Families

A new study finds similarities in people’s craving for food in response to being hungry and people’s craving for social interaction in response to isolation. The research authors note this supports the notion that social interaction is a basic human need, similar to food and sleep.

The research is particularly timely given the pandemic-related forced isolation of people all over the world in the past year. The study was undertaken by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The study, led by Livia Tomova, Ph.D., examined participants’ reactions to hunger and isolation through both interviews and assessing brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants, 40 healthy young adults with regular social interactions, underwent 10 hours of social isolation one day and 10 hours of fasting another day.

At the end of each day of deprivation, participants were exposed to either social cues or food cues while undergoing fMRI. The cues included both color images and verbal descriptions. Social cues images were of groups of people as they met, talked, laughed, and smiled and the food cue images were of highly palatable foods. Each participant’s cues were individually developed based on their specific preferred foods and modes of social interaction.

These reactions could be seen even though the deprivation was only 10 hours and people knew when it would end. The extent of the changes the researchers identified with the brain imaging correlated with the level of cravings the participants reported.

The researchers found that for both hunger and isolation, deprivation “narrows and focuses the brain’s motivational responses to the deprived target,” so that depriving one need might reduce motivation to pursue other needs in the short term. For example, someone who is very hungry may be less motivated to be social. However, the researchers suggest long-term isolation “could result in a shut-down of these adaptive efforts, resulting in social withdrawal” and motivation to compensate in other ways.

In addition, people who reported higher levels of loneliness before the study showed lower levels of craving in response to the study isolation. The authors note that this is consistent with the notion that a person’s experience of chronic isolation can lead to withdrawing from social interaction.

Can Social Media Meet the Need for Social Interaction?

Given the importance of social interaction, the authors asked how much, and what kinds of positive social interaction are sufficient to fulfill social needs? Could social media and other digital interaction fulfill the need for social interaction?

Technology offers us many opportunities to virtually connected with others. During the pandemic, these virtual connections have become the primary interactions for many people worldwide who have been required to isolate and limit physical social interaction. While connecting online is certainly an important way to keep socially connected to others, and likely provides some of the social interaction we crave, the extent to which it meets our need for social interaction is a subject for future research.


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