A study on isolation’s neural underpinnings implies many may feel literally “starved” for contact amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Loneliness hurts. It is psychologically distressing and so physically unhealthy that being lonely increases the likelihood of an earlier death by 26 percent. But the feeling may serve a purpose. Psychologists theorize it hurts so much because, like hunger and thirst, loneliness acts as a biological alarm bell. The ache of it drives us to seek out social connection just as hunger pangs urge us to eat. The idea is intuitively satisfying, yet it has long proved difficult to test in humans.
On March 26, however, just as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology posted a preliminary report on bioRxiv. It is the first study in humans to show that both loneliness and hunger share signals deep in a part of the brain that governs very basic impulses for reward and motivation. The findings point to one telling conclusion: our need to connect is apparently as fundamental as our need to eat.
The extraordinary scientific timing of the paper’s release just as tens of millions of people were suddenly starved for contact was far from intentional. When they began the work three years ago, neuroscientists Livia Tomova and Rebecca Saxe and their colleagues wanted to demonstrate how loneliness operates in the brain. They were inspired by similar research in animals and the pioneering loneliness studies of the late University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo.
But enforced social isolation is so rare in healthy, nonincarcerated humans that it gave the team pause. “I sometimes struggled to articulate what that would be like in the real world,” Saxe admits. “Why would that ever happen?” By the time the researchers came to write their study this year, the unimaginable had become real. Now, Saxe says, “what feels most significant about this paper is that it’s a way to step outside the experience we’re having and look on it through a different lens.”
This is “a tour de force paper,” says psychologist Jamil Zaki of Stanford University, who was not involved in the research. He studies empathy and social interaction and is author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. “Speculatively, it suggests that chronic social isolation might be something like long-term undernourishment, producing steady, aversive need that wears away at our well-being,” Zaki says. “These findings give a name to what countless people are experiencing right now: social craving while staying at home to protect the public health...”
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