Quirks & Quarks

Your brain's 'hunger' for social interaction and your strange COVID dreams

Isolation can make our brains crave social interaction like we do food after fasting and result in unusually vivid dreams

Isolation can make our brains crave social interaction like we do food and result in unusually vivid dreams

More than one in four Canadians are reporting more generalized anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, some reporting much more vivid and action-packed dreams than usual. It turns out our brains crave social interaction like it does eating after a day of fasting. (John Moore / Getty Images)
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Our brains, when deprived of social interaction, hunger for it, according to a study done before social isolation became an uncomfortable reality with the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

"We were curious about how social isolation would affect human brains, but worried that no one would have any idea why that was relevant," researcher Rebecca Saxe told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

Some people are still going into work where they get some social interaction, but for most other Canadians who remain under strict social lockdown — especially for those without loved ones around or access to video conferencing technology, the isolation can be really tough. 

We saw the same kind of response in your brain to pictures of social interactions after isolation as we did on the other day when you were hungry and you were looking at pictures of your favourite food.- Rebecca Saxe, MIT

A survey on the psychosocial impacts COVID-19 conducted out of the University of Sherbrooke suggests that more than one in four Canadians are suffering from anxiety as a result of the pandemic stress. 

There are also many anecdotal reports of people experiencing weird "COVID-19 dreams" as a result of this unprecedented and stressful situation. 

Probing our brain's craving for social stimulation

Saxe, a Canadian who is a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, said for their study on how our brains crave social interaction, they brought volunteers into the lab twice - once to study the impacts of social isolation, and once to investigate food deprivation.  The volunteers were healthy adults who were socially active and ate a "typical diet." 

On the day of the social isolation experiment, the study participants even had to come in early, to learn how to put themselves into the brain scanner at the end of the day to completely avoid having to interact with anyone else. 

"In a deep part of your brain that's associated with craving, we saw the same kind of response in your brain to pictures of social interactions after isolation as we did on the other day when you were hungry and you were looking at pictures of your favourite food," said Saxe.

A woman walking her dogs is reflected in the window of a store near Wall Street in New York City as people stay away from the area — and from each other — due to the coronavirus. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

There was one interesting difference.  Hunger impacted all the volunteers similarly. However the lack of social interaction had different effects on different people. 

People who said they were lonely before they came in for the study showed a less strong response to being isolated for a day.  Saxe suggests two possible explanations.

"It could mean that if you have to deal with a lot of loneliness you kind of get used to it. And so after a lot of loneliness you no longer respond anymore. But it could actually go the other way; it could mean that people whose brains don't respond as strongly in social craving are the ones who in their real lives don't seek as much social contact.

Lack of mental stimulation may be resulting in 'COVID dreams'

People are also reporting more vivid and detailed dreams during this pandemic, possibly due to the decline in mental activity during the day and increase in stress and anxiety.

These reports attracted the interest of Jake Roberts, a graduate student at the University College London, and fellow students in psychoanalysis. Initially they noticed changes in their own dreams — they were detailed and richer than normal since the COVID-19 lockdown began. 

Roberts said the strange dreams he'd been having had an added element that caught him off-guard: "A lot of emotional content. Things I hadn't thought of in a long time. It's taken me aback a little bit."

Roberts and his group wondered if this was also the case with other people. 

To find out, they launched a project called Lockdown Dreams in which they're asking members of the public to complete a survey about their dreams. 

The youngest participant dreamt that there were ladybirds who were blowing bubbles, and catching COVID-19 in the bubbles,- Jake Roberts, University of College London

Was I dreaming? Or did that really happen?

So far, they've seen some clear patterns. People are reporting dreams that involve common themes like shopping for food, but often layered with anxious situations like running away from someone, or being chased, as well as doing something wrong or unacceptable. Roberts thinks these types of dreams may be the result of the fear and anxiety people are feeling during this pandemic.

Many people are also reporting very active dreams with ready made narratives, not unlike the plot of a James Bond movie. 

"There is a lot of similarity between these quite dramatic action movies and the situation right now", Roberts said. "We have an assailant in the guise of COVID-19."

He said the youngest to reply, an 8 year old, "dreamt that there were ladybirds who were blowing bubbles, and catching COVID-19 in the bubbles." 

Our rich and detailed dreams reveal true feelings toward this global pandemic. “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy," Sigmund Freud. (Victoria Bennet / Lockdown Dreams)

Roberts suggests the vividness of the dreams people are reporting may be our brains' way of compensating for the drop in mental activity — including the decline in social interaction — many are experiencing due to the lockdown.

Another theory is the film-like detail and narratives people are describing about their dreams could be happening because people are watching a lot more television and movies.

He said he hopes the data they're gathering now will be useful to analyze the effects of the pandemic on people's subconsciousness once we're able to safely get out of the lockdown and return to our socially rich lives. 

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting and Mark Crawley

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