MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.
- 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.
Can we end world hunger by 2030? Thanks to a new program, the data for it is all there.
- An international team of researchers has released a series of studies geared towards ending world hunger.
- They are thought to be some of the first people to use Evidence Synthesis for agricultural data.
- Their ideas could increase food production and lower poverty for a low cost, regardless if they meet their lofty goal.
World Hunger is one of those problems that everybody seems to want to solve but that just won't go away. In 2020, nearly 700 million people suffered from hunger at some point.
This is despite years of both lip service to the idea of feeding everybody and sincere attempts by people, governments, and organizations with deep pockets to solve the issue. The number of people going hungry has been declining in recent years, but getting those last few hundred million fed has proven difficult.
A new project offers potential solutions that could finally feed the world. Ceres2030, named for the Roman Goddess of Agriculture, aims to help the world reach the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal No. 2 and end world hunger in ten years using evidence-based, targeted investments in various areas.
Who are these people?
Headquartered at Cornell University, Ceres2030 is a collective project involving people from around the world. It is financed in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.
The enterprise includes more than 70 researchers from 23 different countries with the best information available on what works to reduce hunger. These researchers are divided into eight teams, each covering a separate subject area. Each group reviews the literature and combines it into a general review which can be used to inform policy decisions.
There exists a technique, frequently used in medical science and other health-related fields, called "Evidence Synthesis." It aims to review all of the relevant literature on a topic in a way that outlines where the scientific consensus is, clearly shows where gaps in the research are, and provides a context for new discoveries. Before now, it was rarely, if ever, used to review information on agriculture.
Using AI to sort through the endless data, the project considered half a million previously published reports, studies, and articles searching for information. By reviewing the summaries of these documents, the machine was able to synthesize the findings. The humans involved with the project then took these findings and authored ten papers summarizing them to allow readers to draw broad conclusions on what the evidence suggests would effectively improve crop yields and farmer incomes.
This might strike you as a high tech version of an intensive review of the literature. However, it is essential to remember that many important works can sit unread for years at a time. Some of the studies reviewed may have been read by no more than a handful of people, and they certainly never reached the attention of farmers or officials in a place to apply their findings. By having computers go through this information, the Ceres team was able to create the most comprehensive summation of the data possible.
If humans alone were trying to do this task, they'd probably still be reviewing the data in 2030.
What do they want us to do?
The analysis shows that many studies agree on the benefits of a few, straightforward initiatives. Among these findings are game-changing ideas like:
Farmer's organizations help their members increase both their incomes and crop yields. Membership was linked with higher incomes in nearly 60 percent of studies, and benefits to crop yields were demonstrated in a quarter. These organizations play a part in helping farmers adopt modern techniques, tools, and crop types to help implement other policy suggestions. Assisting people in joining them can have a tremendous impact on their lives.
In the middle and lower-income countries, nearly three-quarters of small farmers live and work in areas where water is scarce. The vast majority of these farms do not have an irrigation system to speak of. Output and income could both be increased by addressing this infrastructure issue. Helping farmers switch to more climate change and drought-resistant crops and introduce new and improved livestock sources, both as sources of labor and food, can improve productivity and keep people resilient in the face of climate change.
These are just a handful of the ideas Ceres2030 endorse in their press releases. In each case, they point to piles of data showing the effectiveness of these ideas in increasing incomes, crop yields, and small producers' resiliency in the face of threats such as climate change. It could cost roughly 14 billion dollars more a year in aid to do it, about twice as much as we are spending on the problem now, alongside new investments by the governments of nations most plagued by hunger.
All of these ideas can be implemented tomorrow; many places have already done these things. It is only a matter of deciding to do it. Some of the findings and ideas are even simpler than these, including discovering that we waste a lot of food and that simple solutions can prevent much of it.
More information on their ideas and how they came to their conclusions can be found on the Ceres2030 website.
Will this work?
The findings and recommendations are based on extensive research, histories of successful implementation elsewhere, and a sincere desire to use evidence to help people. Following them would lead to better-informed farmers making more money while sustainably growing more food. The recommendations are neither one-size-fits-all, nor are they overly specific to the point where they cannot be generalized.
There are also plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. A study published this year in Nature argues that we will not be able to end world hunger by 2030. It takes the stance that some countries with endemic malnourishment are unlikely to reach their development targets for 2025, let alone the more ambitious goals for 2030.
The costs of not at least making progress on this front are very high. Without progress, an additional 100 million people could end up both hungry and mired in extreme poverty by the end of the decade, according to an estimate by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some regression already, as economic difficulty leads to empty bellies.
The entirety of human history has been marked by attempts to produce enough food for everybody, and it is only recently (relatively speaking) that we've managed to do that. Today, we grow enough food for 10 billion people but seem to have difficulty getting it to the people who need it most. The suggestions of the Ceres2030 team, if followed, offer the chance to finally rid the world of hunger and famine for less than $50 per currently malnourished person per year.
It's only a question of doing it. Let's see if we want to.
We might feel fuller, but eating foods marketed for "fullness" won't prevent us from consuming more calories, even when we're not hungry.
There are foods you can eat to keep you fuller, longer. These foods are often touted as aids in weight loss: eat this product and you won't feel the need to eat anymore. How valid is that? Researchers from the University of Sheffield say these foods may curb your hunger, but it won’t prevent you from eating just to eat.
“The food industry is littered with products which are marketed on the basis of their appetite-modifying properties,” said lead researcher of this new study, Dr. Bernard Corfe. “Whilst these claims may be true, they shouldn’t be extended to imply that energy intake will be reduced as a result.”
“For example, you could eat a meal which claims to satisfy your appetite and keep you feeling full-up for a long period of time but nonetheless go on to consume a large amount of calories later on.”
Certain foods are digested more slowly, like eggs, avocados, and legumes, which will help keep you feeling fuller, longer. But to suggest it’s a weight-loss solution, which will prevent people from indulging later on, might be a stretch. We’ve all just eaten to eat; whether we indulge that impulse is another thing.
The study, published in Food Science and Nutrition journal, was a review of 462 papers to see if self-reported hunger levels could be a reliable predictor of calorie consumption. Upon examination of this collected data, researchers found “appetite scores failed to correspond with energy intake in 51.3% of the total studies” and “only 6% of all studies evaluated here reported a direct statistical comparison between appetite scores and energy intake.”
Dr. Corfe says that what drives us to eat isn’t just about one factor. He even told Munchies in an interview: “Appetite is a part of that equation, but our work suggests it may not be the most important part, not by a long way.” Environmental, social, and behavioral drives must be examined, as well.
“This will be important to understand how obesity occurs, how to prevent it, and how we need to work in partnership with the food industry to develop improved tests for foods that are genuinely and effectively able to satisfy appetite,” Dr. Corfe said.
Perhaps the best way to be truly healthy is to eat with a focus on brain health, as nutritional psychiatrist Dr Drew Ramsey recommends: