When people are forced to be isolated from each other, do they crave social interactions? To address this question, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure neural responses evoked by food and social cues after participants (n = 40) experienced 10 h of mandated fasting or total social isolation. After isolation, people felt lonely and craved social interaction. Midbrain regions showed selective activation to food cues after fasting and to social cues after isolation; these responses were correlated with self-reported craving.
By contrast, striatal and cortical regions differentiated between craving food and craving social interaction. Across deprivation sessions, we found that deprivation narrows and focuses the brain’s motivational responses to the deprived target. Our results support the intuitive idea that acute isolation causes social craving, similar to the way fasting causes hunger.