Our Brains Are Being Starved During Social Distancing — Here’s Why

Our need for human connections is similar to our need for food.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
April 6, 2020

It’s official: all of this isolation is getting to us. For most people, the new policies of physical distancing and staying at home all the time — thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — is a major shift in lifestyle. Yes, it may make us anxious and lonely, but there’s actually a psychological reason for that. According to an article in Scientific American, psychologists have theorized that loneliness stings so much so it can serve as a “biological alarm bell.” In other words, loneliness hurts in order to prompt us to make connections with other people — similar to how being hungry reminds us to eat.

But until recently, this idea was a theory without scientific backing. Then, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a preliminary report which demonstrated for the first time that humans get similar signals in our brains for both loneliness and hunger. And though the researchers began this study three years ago, its publication just happened to coincide with the coronavirus outbreak, which has left a lot of people lonelier than usual. 

“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,” Jamil Zaki a psychologist at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research, tells Scientific American. “These findings give a name to what countless people are experiencing right now: social craving while staying at home to protect the public health.”

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the researchers of the study decided that their next step should be to look at whether social media could help us feel as though we’re truly connecting with other people. “Twenty years from now,” Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist and co-author of the study explains, “we will know what all the effects were of this experience we are having.” For now, know if you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone. Even though we can’t see friends, family, and colleagues in person right now, this is a great time to set up a Zoom gathering with friends or FaceTime with your family. At least you know everyone is home.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

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This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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