Skin hunger and social distancing: the neuroscience point of view

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us faced lockdown and social distancing in a condition of loneliness only partially overcome by that technology.

Social media and online platforms allowed us to stay connected with many people, not only talking but even seeing each other. As reported in an article in The Conversation by Emily Cross and Anna Henschel, a study has shown that people interacting via video chat report a greater sense of social presence and involvement. Robots, on the other hand, can help isolated people feel less lonely since they represent an “incarnation”. Cross e and Henschel report a randomised control study on the use of Paro, a robot seal pup: residents of a nursing home who interacted with it reported a decrease in feelings of loneliness.

But technology has failed to fully replace our drive to create connections, relationships, affections. Cross and Henschel continue,

When we spend quality time with another person, we experience intrinsic joy. Brain scanning studies show that subcortical brain regions, such as the ventral striatum, which plays an important role in motivation, are activatedwhen receiving monetary and social rewards. When we feel lonely and rejected, brain regions associated with distress and rumination are activated instead. This may be due to evolution driving us to establish and maintain social connections to ensure survival. Lonely people also have a more negative focus and anxiously scrutinise people’s intentions. Sometimes this can become so strong that it makes us feel even more lonely – creating a vicious cycle.

Loneliness, therefore, has an impact on the neurological and even physical level and is found to be predictive of mortality. Some psychologists have theorised that isolation can also act as a biological “wake-up call”: it pushes us to seek a bond, just as hunger warns us that we need to eat. As reported by Lydia Denworth in an article in Scientific American, in March 2020, Livia Tomova and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies published a preliminary report – not yet peer-reviewed – on bioRxiv, in which they argue that loneliness and hunger share deep signals in a part of the brain that governs basic impulses for reward and motivation. The authors conclude that the need we have to be in relationship with other people is as fundamental as the need to eat: social contact is an unavoidable need.

During social distancing, the feeling of loneliness has become physical. We felt the lack of embrace, touch and physical presence: the hunger for skin, the biological need for human contact, as Sirin Kale defines it in an article in Weird. The touch is fundamental for immune function, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which when too high, depletes our immune system. Touch also releases oxytocin.

As Kale concludes:

[H]human touch is biologically good for you. Being touched makes humans feel calmer, happier, and more healthy.

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