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When I first heard a friend use the word “hangry” several years ago with a group of friends, I marveled at its accuracy. The portmanteau, a combination of “hungry” and “angry,” perfectly described the present disposition of our buddy Ryan, who was storming ahead of the group, desperately searching for a late night place to eat. We’d just gotten out of a long movie, and Ryan hadn’t eaten since lunch 10 hours ago — a fact he kept repeating to us. He was irritable, impatient and annoyed by our leisurely pace.
Since then I use the word “hangry” all the time (I experience hanger a fair share, myself, to be honest) but I’ve long questioned its scientific authenticity. Is “hanger” a valid phenomenon? Can the physical presence of hunger actually affect our brains and thus our mood, perceptions and reactions? We consulted experts to unpack the fascinating science behind hanger, which is indeed, a real thing.
Hunger turns up the dial on anger
“While it does seem like a silly colloquial term, ‘hanger’ has come about to describe this experience we’ve all had,” says Dr. Kristin Lindquist, assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and co-author of the recent study “Feeling Hangry? When Hunger Is Conceptualized As Emotion”.
“[My colleagues and I] are interested in this phenomenon because we study emotions and what the more basic processes are in the brain that contribute to emotions. There does seem to be a physiological and corresponding psychological shift when we’re hungry,” she tells NBC News BETTER.
Through a series of tests, Dr. Lindquist and her team concluded that when hungry, people are more likely to be in a negative mindset than those who are sated. One of the tests put participants in slightly annoying situations — like being faced with a computer malfunction and having to start a tedious task over. The empty-stomached participants were overtly peeved, and later, when given an evaluation of the research assistant’s performance were much likely to give negative feedback, saying that the research assistant had “been judgmental towards them”, Lindquist says, “suggesting that hunger turns up the dial on your anger in the face of a frustrating experience.”
When homeostasis is disrupted, our brain sends signals of a problem
Why does this happen? In part it comes down to interference with the body’s homeostasis, or the body’s sense of equilibrium, that hunger creates.
“Hunger as a state actually causes a lot of shifts in hormones, brain processes and the peripheral nervous system that are comparable to what we see in anger, fear and sadness,” explains Lindquist. “The reason we have emotions in the first place is to help our bodies maintain homeostasis. Your brain is always trying to monitor the body and make sure you’re in homeostasis and if you’re not, it sends a signal to the body that we have to shift some things. That shift out of homeostasis into this state [of needing food] is experienced as negative, [triggering] cascades of hormones like cortisol, fight or flight responses, and so on. Ultimately your brain is sending a signal to your body that things are not good and need to be figured out.’”