An Appetite for Connection; The Neuroscience of Loneliness and How to Prevent it - Food for the Brain

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Despite the festivities and joy that Christmas celebrations can bring for some, for many, it can be a particularly painful time with heightened feelings of loneliness and despair. This may be especially true for those who are isolated or disconnected from their loved ones. With the extra pressures that this year brings, it’s important to have some strategies in place to help us find a sense of connection. 

An interesting recent study, offers some key information on how the brain is wired to seek social connection as if our survival depended on it, which helps us to understand why many of us feel such despair when we’re lonely. Neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge observed 40 participants in complete isolation for 10 hours, after which they were shown images of people socialising or playing sport. In response to these images, neurons in the midbrain – which is the part of the brain that is responsible for producing dopamine, our reward neurotransmitter – were stimulated. Interestingly, the same thing happened when these same participants – on a different day – were made to fast for 10 hours and then shown images of appetising food, like pizza and cake. This demonstrates how when we are lonely, we crave social connection in the same way that we crave food when we’re hungry. 

Connection to others is just as much of a necessity to survive as it is to eat, and it’s not the first time that science is showing this. For example, we know that loneliness is a significant risk factor for poorer cognitive health, as well as depression and mortality. So, in light of this, and with the added pressures of the pandemic, how can we nurture our connection with

others to help us thrive throughout the festive season? Here are a few tips that can help to boost our sense of connectedness:

  1. Review which kinds of social interactions energise you the most 

This may be a time to reflect on which relationships/social circles you value the most and which ones may be leaving you a little drained. It is possible to feel lonely or disconnected, even when you’re with friends or family. Once you’ve determined those that you value the most, find time to nurture those connections away from distractions, such as phones or TV. Getting out in nature by finding a new park or green space you’ve never been to before and arranging a walk with a friend, or cooking a new recipe with your loved one and having a romantic dinner. The list is endless, but the most important thing is that it works for you. 

  1. Find a volunteering opportunity

Science shows that altruistic behaviour, kindness and compassion, increase levels of endorphins and oxytocin, as well as creating new neural connections. Find a local food bank distribution venue or another cause that you resonate with where you can meet new people and help support others. 

  1. Get creative

Getting involved in creative expression of any kind, from drawing and cooking, to gardening or dancing, can help to increase a sense of connection to ourselves and others. For example, making something creative with a friend or giving something creative as a gift, can be very therapeutic and rewarding, and has the added bonus of not requiring technology.

Final words…

It’s worth reiterating that loneliness can be a subjective experience, meaning that we can still be lonely despite having many loved ones around us. This highlights the need to take time to reflect and identify what makes each of us as individuals feel connected.