Image of Rebecca Saxe, Ph.D.

Isolated people hunger for social connection the way we crave food, sparking similar brain activity, according to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Investigators showed pictures to study participants as they underwent fMRI brain scans. After one day of total isolation, the sight of people having fun together activated the same region that lit up when someone who hadn’t eaten all day saw an image of cheesy pasta, investigators said. 

“Our finding fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need,” said Rebecca Saxe, Ph.D., senior author of the study. Acute loneliness motivates people to repair what is lacking — just as hunger does, she said.

The strength of the brain’s response was tied to participants’ normal levels of loneliness, Saxe and team found. “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,” she said. People who reported fewer connections were less affected by the pictures.

The results, described in Nature Neuroscience, are part of a larger study of how social stress affects behavior and motivation. 

Now that it is known that the effects of social isolation can be seen in brain activity, the researchers say they can seek to answer more questions. These include how social isolation affects people’s behavior, whether virtual socializing such as video calls help to alleviate the cravings for interaction, and the impact of isolation on different age groups.