During times of mandatory isolation, like COVID-19 “social distancing”, countless people experience loneliness. Feeling lonely is a natural response to a need for social contact. But our craving for social contact is also very similar to cravings like thirst and hunger.
Social isolation creates a need for interaction that triggers feelings to motivate us to fix what we’re missing, similar to how thirst acts like an alarm bell telling us that we need water. Loneliness and thirst share signals in a part of the brain called the “subtantia nigra” that governs basic impulses for reward. This is part of the so-called “brain-reward circuit.”
Researchers at MIT have tracked how activity in the substantia nigra responds to social isolation. They did this using MRI. In an experiment, forty adults who were normally highly socially connected were deprived of food for ten hours and then, on another day, deprived of social contact for ten hours. While ten hours may not seem long, the participants weren’t allowed access to phones, laptops, or even novels to give them a sense of social connection.
After the isolation, brain scans of the participants showed that the substantia nigra was more active after being shown cues of their preferred type of social activities. These responses in the substantia nigra were similar to how this brain region reacted when participants were shown pictures of food, after being food deprived. Put in context, this shows that our needs for social interaction are basic needs for our psychological and physiological well-being.
How do you satisfy those basic needs when you’re isolated? Do novels or social media help? Or do they leave you craving for more?