Yearning for connection? Loneliness is associated with increased ventral striatum activity to close others.
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsv076
Loneliness is a distressing state indicating that one's basic need for social connection is not being met. In an effort to satisfy the need for social connection, loneliness may increase the processing of social cues and desire to connect with others. Yet the neural substrates that contribute to the drive for increased connection in response to loneliness are not known. The ventral striatum (VS), previously shown to increase in response to craving food and other rewarding stimuli, may contribute to "social craving" when one is lonely. That is, the VS may track one's 'hunger' for reconnection much as it tracks hunger for food. To examine this, participants reported on their feelings of loneliness before undergoing an fMRI scan where they viewed cues of potential social reconnection (images of a close other). Consistent with the hypothesis that loneliness stems from an unmet need for connection, loneliness was associated with reduced feelings of connection with the close other. Furthermore, greater reported loneliness was associated with increased VS activity to viewing a close other (vs stranger). Results extend the current literature by showing that lonely individuals show increased activity in reward-related regions to their closest loved ones, possibly reflecting an increased desire for social connection.