Affect Hunger: The Path to Sweet Loneliness or the Road to Hell

Affect hunger is a little known and largely understudied emotion that underlies a vast array of emotional and behavioral disorders. Aspects of its effect on humans have been noticed for centuries, but only recently have we begun to see it as the neurological current underlying emotional phenomena ranging from temporary loneliness to suicidal depression and psychotic madness. Yet it’s a process operating in every one of these conditions. When the nerves in the front part of the brain, where our sense of self resides, don’t get enough emotional exercise, the person becomes aware of the wide variety of ways that affect hunger affects them.  

In this blog post, I’ll focus on affect hunger when it’s experienced specifically as loneliness. In future posts I’ll describe its presence in addictions, depression, murderous rage, and psychosis.

The Difference between Emotions and Feelings

Before we talk about loneliness, we need to clarify what we mean by “emotion” and “feeling.” Most people use these terms interchangeably without knowing that they are experienced from different parts of the brain. Emotion is the experience of the body when a person is affectively aroused. Because the biological function of this arousal is orientation – that is, orienting us within our surroundings in any situation – emotion is a major tool for survival.  It lets us know where we are in relationship to anything to which we cannot automatically or instinctively respond. For example, if we’re embarrassed we will blush.  If we’re frightened, we’ll experience a rush of adrenalin. If we’re disgusted we might feel a bit nauseated. The emotional part of the neurological self is located in the core brain, and it triggers physical reactions.

In contrast, the feeling of embarrassment is like an explanation. It tells us why we’re having that feeling, and frequently the explanation carries with it a set of instructions so we know what to do about the feeling. To use the previous examples, if we’re embarrassed, the feeling of embarrassment will tell us why we’re blushing and what we might do to get out of it; the feeling of fright will offer an explanation for why we’re covered in goosebumps and a possible course of action to make the sensation stop; the nausea of disgust will be accompanied by a reason we’re suddenly queasy and an idea of what we should do about it.

This explanatory, instructive aspect is learned in childhood and is located in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. Usually, feelings are experienced in the center of our attention and emotions are experienced in the background, behind feelings. It’s like the melody of a song: we can focus on the tune itself, or we can focus on the meaning of the lyrics. With feelings and emotion, we can focus on the explanation of feelings, or shift to the emotional sensation in our bodies. 


We experience loneliness in many different ways. As I mentioned in my previous blog post on Love, one of the most common ways we experience loneliness is the longing for a loved one.  We may also experience loneliness for a particular skill or talent. For instance, if you’re an artist and haven’t practiced your art for a long time, you’ll probably ache to get back to your practice as soon as possible. The difference between these two kinds of loneliness resides in the way your neurological self gets exercised. It can be exercised by a lover, spouse, partner, child, friend, or any other person to whom you have become dearly attached. Artists love their work and, therefore, they have become attached to their art because it exercises their neurological selves.  In the practice of any art, the artist will at some moments of her work do something that pleases her, because the practice of an art is a form of self-love. In both kinds of love, interpersonal love or intrapersonal, the person’s neurological self’s affect hunger is being nurtured. 

 The Definition of Loneliness

When the emotion of the affect hunger of the neurological self is in need of validational exercise, it activates an explanation of that need. This explanation is the experience of loneliness.  Repeating what I said previously about love, we all have fingerprints, yet they are uniquely ours and no two are identical. The same is true for feelings: we all have them, but we all experience them differently. Like love, loneliness is experienced by the ways we were loved as infants and young children. We became attached to our mothers, fathers, or caretakers in the different ways we were repeatedly touched, held, and loved. 

If our early years were filled with joy and tenderness, and if we were separated from loved ones for short periods of time, our experience of loneliness is likely to be laced with sweet expectation. On the other hand, if in our early years we were not touched or played with enough, our loneliness is likely to be confused and we are likely to be emotionally clumsy with close relationships. And finally, if the process of infantile and early attachment to parents is accompanied with severe physical and emotional abuse, loneliness is experienced with painful rage. 

Those who have been very badly abused are confronted with a terrible dilemma. Like everyone else, they have the affect hunger of their neurological selves.  Their neurological selves, therefore, are compelled like the rest of us to be nourished with validational feedback; but at the same time, that need causes them to suffer incredible pain.  We know from copious studies and the accompanying literature about the dreadful consequences of solitary confinement that humans suffer without this kind of human contact. 

I’ll describe the consequences of this awful deprivation in upcoming posts.