Lonely? Hungry? The same part of the brain worries about both

MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.

A person looking out the window
Credit: Dương Nhân from Pexels
  • A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
  • Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
  • Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic started, an epidemic of loneliness existed. This is not only unpleasant for those involved but has measurably adverse effects on their mental and physical health. The current outbreak has only made an existing problem worse.

A new study undertaken by researchers at MIT and the Sulk Institute suggests that our need for socialization is as hardwired as our need for food and water. It finds that the same part of our brain that hungers for food after a day of fasting longs for other people after isolation.

People sometimes crave socialization, literally.

Forty participants underwent 10 hours of either social isolation or fasting before being placed in an MRI machine. Those who fasted had their brains imaged while viewing pictures of food; those emerging from isolation viewed photos of socializing people.

The areas of the brain related to hunger pains, reward, and movements, the substantia nigra pars compacta and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), are also associated with cravings for food or addictive substances. When those who fasted viewed images of food, these regions of their brains lit up. Most interestingly, the same brain regions lit up when those who had been isolated for 10 hours saw pictures of other people socializing.

Test subjects also filled out questionnaires during and after the fasting and isolation periods. Not only did this confirm that people felt cravings for what they had missed, but that the effect was similar in both cases.

They also showed that very hungry people were less responsive to images of socializing, suggesting that "hanger," the state of being irritable as a result of hunger, is a demonstrable state.

How can I use this information? I’m asking for a friend.

The obvious takeaway is that it is perfectly normal to feel a need for interaction with others after an extended bout of isolation. Our brains treat some form of interaction as a basic need that must be met. While not shown as clearly in humans, not getting these needs often drives mice to stress eat, a finding that makes a great deal of sense in light of these new findings.

Exactly how we can meet the need for socialization outside of just meeting up with people (a tricky proposition at the time of writing) remains up for debate. Anybody who has tried a Zoom party during the pandemic can attest to it just not being as nice as seeing friends in person.

The study's authors are aware of this issue and note that:

"A vital question is how much, and what kinds of, positive social interaction is sufficient to fulfill our social needs and thus eliminate the neural craving response. Technological advances offer incessant opportunities to be virtually connected with others, despite physical separations. Yet, some have argued that using social media only exacerbates subjective feelings of isolation."

Unfortunately, the study cannot offer us an answer to this question just yet.

Like always, there are limitations to this study.

This study involved 40 participants. While its essential finding is likely to be generally applicable, exactly how applicable it is to the broader population cannot be known with certainty from such a small group. The participants were also healthy, well-connected young adults who might react to various problems differently than other demographic groups.

Their tendency to do so while being the focus of endless studies on psychology is a well-recorded problem.

Likewise, the fact that the participants knew they would only be isolated for 10 hours may have impacted how they reacted to the isolation—it is often easier to endure something when you know precisely when it will end.

Getting around that in future experiments may prove impossible. From an ethical standpoint, it would be difficult to structure an experiment on humans predicated on the idea that they will be kept isolated from all social interaction indefinitely.

Lastly, while all of the participants were quite hungry after 10 hours, there were enough variations in how lonely people felt after isolation to suggest a more significant variance in need for socialization than in demand for food. While this seems obvious, we all know both introverts and extroverts; it does make it more challenging to determine how much social interaction counts as a "need" that the brain craves just as it craves food.

As usual, more research is needed.

The idea that humans are social animals existed long before modern neuroscience was possible. Now, we can see exactly what happens in the brain when we can't socialize. While the final word on the subject is still to be said, it might be time to give a friend a call.

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine

How were mRNA vaccines developed? Pfizer's Dr Bill Gruber explains the science behind this record-breaking achievement and how it was developed without compromising safety.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
  • Wondering how Pfizer and partner BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time without compromising safety? Dr Bill Gruber, SVP of Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, explains the process from start to finish.
  • "I told my team, at first we were inspired by hope and now we're inspired by reality," Dr Gruber said. "If you bring critical science together, talented team members together, government, academia, industry, public health officials—you can achieve what was previously the unachievable."
  • The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent COVID-19 for use in individuals 12 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorized for the duration of the emergency declaration unless ended sooner. See Fact Sheet: cvdvaccine-us.com/recipients.

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