Know Why It’s Hard to Stay Home? Blame It On Your Brain
Cravings Are Almost Universal
Have you ever had a craving? An if-I-don’t-get-some-popcorn-RIGHT-NOW-I’m-gonna-go-rob a-movie-theatre-kind-of-urge? You can almost taste the butter. You can feel the puffy texture in your mouth. You can hear the crunch of kernels as you cram a greasy handful into your mouth. Once you’ve started thinking about it, It’s hard to stop. You want it. You need it.
You know what I mean.
Any woman who’s ever been pregnant understands the intensity of a craving for funky food and strange culinary combinations. (Remember pickles? Rootbeer floats? Potato salad? Peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches?)
My dad used to say his mother craved ashes when she was pregnant with him. I never quite believed him until I discovered a food disorder called “pica” that causes people to have cravings for non-food items like dirt or chalk. It sometimes affects pregnant women, thus my grandmother’s long-ago urge to eat ashes. (It’s a hard mental picture to erase. I see my sweet Maw-Maw sticking a spoon in the fireplace, smearing it around, and greedily licking it as she brings it to her mouth, ashes graying her lips.)
If you’ve never had a food craving, then count yourself lucky. You’re a definite minority. Almost everyone, at least 90% of the population, suffers from the occasional food craving. If you’ve got a specific food in mind, that’s called a selective craving. If you just want to eat — something, anything — then that’s a nonselective craving.
What triggers cravings?
No wonder we have to watch our weight. Those food urges are frequent and are easily triggered. Think about the smell of freshly baked yeast rolls slathered in butter as you walk by a restaurant, making you suddenly ravenous for bread. Watch an ad on tv for a milkshake, and all you can think about is how that sweet, cold, creamy shake would taste as it slides down your parched throat. Listen to someone describing their lunch of “French Fry Delight,” and you’ll be salivating as they recount the crinkly, think, salty french fries topped with chili and cheese.
Cravings are triggered by smells, sights, and hearing. They are also initiated by complex emotions like sadness and depression. (The classic example is digging into the ice cream carton after a painful break-up.) Food urges are also caused by stress. You know, don’t you, that the word “desserts” is “stressed” spelled backward?) While some scientists think that cravings may be a physiological response to fill a nutritional need, most think that cravings are less related to food needs than to emotional or psychological triggers.
Interestingly, men usually crave savory foods; women most often crave sweet and fattening treats. (Hence, the proverbial longing for chocolate or ice cream.) I’m not sure what emotional or psychological triggers cause the different gender preferences, but no matter what the craving is, once you get it, it’s hard to get rid of. Like an ear-worm for your mouth, cravings stick with you and keep repeating, causing your mouth to water and your stomach to growl until it’s satisfied.
It’s not just food that we crave. Science is beginning to demonstrate that other urges are just as primal, just as strong, as the urge to eat.
Are You Struggling with Quarantining and Social Distancing?
Is it hard for you to stay at home? Do you have the urge to go to a party? Are you compelled to sit outside in a park — no matter the weather — just so you can be near people?
Blame your brain. The craving to connect with others is hot-wired into you and may be just as just as important to survival as finding food.
Maslow may have been wrong. Yes, food, water, water, and warmth — along with safety and security — are basic human needs. But according to a recent study, the desire to connect with other humans is also a primal urge and might be a first-level need.
A New Study at M.I.T.
Livie Tomova, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to study the effect of isolation on the brain. She ran a study asking forty people to fast for ten hours. She asked other participants to isolate themselves with no social contact for ten hours.
Do you know what she found?
A similar response happened in their brains. After fasting for ten hours, hungry people were shown pictures of pizza and chocolate cake. Their midbrain regions lit up. After remaining isolated for ten hours, lonely people were shown pictures of parties and social gatherings. Their midbrain regions lit up, too.
The midbrain regions are connected to cravings because they release dopamine, a chemical associated with rewards. The theory is that when you’re deprived, the brain narrows, focusing in on what you’re deprived of. The production of dopamine elicits a craving, and the craving motivates behavior to find what you need.
In other words, when you’re hungry and your brain thinks about food, you get a craving to find food to put in your mouth. When you’re lonely, and your brain thinks about people, you get a craving to go out and be socially connected.
During COVID-19 and the quarantines and shut-downs, there’s a reason that you want to mingle and connect with others. Your brain is causing you to find what you need.
Of Mice and Men…Sort Of
Right now, there’s very little research about how the lack of social connection affects us and our brains. However, scientists have found that even mice suffer adverse reactions to loneliness, and they theorize that the same goes for humans. The MIT study by Tomova is one of the first, but after this year and the enforced isolation that many have had to endure, more studies about how loneliness affects our brain are bound to follow.
If you’re feeling lonely, you’re probably feeling the need to go out and do something with other people. While you may want to rethink that urge during the COVID crisis — or at least hold off a few more months until the vaccinations are readily available — you can acknowledge that the craving to be with friends is not just you thinking of behaving badly. Blame your brain for trying to get you to seek what you need.
Imposed Versus Chosen
Being alone with yourself is not bad. Many benefits exist for people who choose to isolate, and often, the most creative people need the most “alone” time. But there’s a difference between being forced to be isolated and choosing to do so.
No one can live without the presence of other people forever. (Just think about the chronic “loners” who don’t fit in and sometimes go off the deep end.) Lucky for us, the human brain knows what to do, hotwiring cravings and pushing us to be social because, after all, people DO need people.