Missing Social Contact? Research Finds Companionship Cravings Are Similar to Food Cravings

With the holidays just around the corner, it’s normal to feel a little unsure about this year’s celebrations. While most state and territory borders around Australia should be reopened by Christmas, there will be families who can’t be together — be it due to health reasons or financial considerations that inhibits them from travelling great distances.

If you haven’t seen your family or those special to you for a number of months, it’s understandable that you might be experiencing a little physical loneliness. In fact, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that the human body hungers for companionship in much the same way it craves food, Fortune has reported.

This data isn’t all that surprising considering that social connection is biologically built into humans. So, in order to explore this, researchers at MIT looked at how a lack of social contact could be compared to time without food.

The study, which was conducted pre-pandemic in 2018 and 2019, found that when the university-age participants went 10 hours without any social contact, it led to a psychological and physical craving that was on the same level of intensity as 10 waking hours without food.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way a hungry person craves food,” Rebecca Saxe, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and the senior author of the study said.

“Our finding fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need, and acute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to repair what is lacking, similar to hunger.”

In order to achieve these findings, participants were observed under two different conditions — one where they spent 10 hours without any social contact (including through their mobile phones) and one where they went 10 hours without food.

At the end of the first observation period, participants underwent MRI scans while also being shown images of happy people together and at the end of the second, were shown pictures of food. Researchers measured the brain activity of the participants upon seeing these images and the area of the brain that was impacted was the same when the participant was socially isolated as well as when the person was deprived of food.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, participants who reported feeling isolated before the study showed a more limited reaction to the 10 hours on their own, while those who had active social lives struggled.

“For people who reported that their lives were really full of satisfying social interactions, this intervention had a bigger effect on their brains and on their self-reports,” said Saxe.

While circumstances are slightly different for us in Australia compared to other parts of the world, thanks to our hard work at keeping COVID-19 at bay, this is a good reminder of the importance of social contact in an increasingly isolated year.

Read more stories from The Latch and follow us on Facebook.