Why Your Brain May Need A Time To Adjust To “Non-Social Distancing”


With COVID-19 vaccines working and restrictions lifted across the country, it’s finally time for those now vaccinated who were crouched at home to ditch the sweatpants and reappear from their Netflix caves. But your brain may not be so eager to jump back into your old social life.

Social distancing measures have been shown to be critical in slowing the spread of COVID-19 around the world, averting an estimated 500 million cases. But, although necessary, 15 months apart from each other has taken its toll on people’s mental health.

In a national survey last fall, 36% of adults in the United States – including 61% of young adults – reported feeling “serious loneliness” during the pandemic. Statistics like these suggest that people would be eager to step onto the social scene.

But if the thought of chatting at a crowded happy hour sounds terrifying to you, you’re not alone. Almost half of Americans said they felt uncomfortable returning to a face-to-face interaction, regardless of their vaccination status.

So how can people be so lonely and nervous about filling out their social calendars?

Social distancing has become the norm during the pandemic. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Well, the brain is remarkably adaptable. And while we can’t know exactly what our brains have been going through in the past year or so, neuroscientists like me have some idea of ​​how social isolation and resocialization affects the brain.

Social homeostasis – The need to socialize

Humans have an evolving need to socialize – although they may not perceive it to be so when deciding between an invitation to dinner and seeing “Schitt’s Creek” again.

From insects to primates, maintaining social networks is essential for survival in the animal kingdom. Social groups provide mating prospects, cooperative hunting, and protection from predators.

But social homeostasis – the right balance of social ties – must be respected. Small social networks cannot provide these benefits, while large ones increase competition for resources and partners. Because of this, the human brain has developed specialized circuitry to assess our relationships and make the correct adjustments, much like a social thermostat.

Social homeostasis involves many regions of the brain, and at the center is the mesocorticolimbic circuit – or “reward system”. That same circuit motivates you to eat chocolate when you crave something sweet or swipe up on Tinder when you feel like… well, you get it.

And like those motivations, a recent study found that reduced social interactions cause social cravings – producing patterns of brain activity similar to starvation.

So if people are hungry for social connection like they are hungry for food, what happens to the brain when you are socially hungry?

Your brain on social isolation

Scientists cannot push people into isolation and look inside their brains. Instead, the researchers are relying on laboratory animals to learn more about the social wiring of the brain. Fortunately, because social bonds are essential in the animal kingdom, these same brain circuits are found across species.

One important effect of social isolation is – you guessed it – increased anxiety and stress.

Numerous studies show that removing animals from their cage mates increases anxiety behaviors and cortisol, the main stress hormone. Human studies also support this, as people with small social circles have higher cortisol levels and other anxiety-related symptoms similar to socially disadvantaged lab animals.

So if people are hungry for social connection like they are hungry for food, what happens to the brain when you are socially hungry?

Evolutionarily, this effect makes sense: animals that lose the protection of their group must become hypervigilant to fend for themselves. And it doesn’t just happen in nature. One study found that people who describe themselves as “lonely” are more vigilant in the face of social threats such as rejection or exclusion.

Another important region for social homeostasis is the hippocampus – the brain’s learning and memory center. Successful social circles require you to learn social behaviors – such as selflessness and cooperation – and to recognize friends from enemies. But your brain is storing huge amounts of information and has to suppress unimportant connections. So like most of your high school Spanish, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Several animal studies show that even temporary isolation in adulthood impairs both social memory – such as recognizing a familiar face – and working memory – such as recalling a recipe while cooking.

And isolated humans can be just as forgetful. The Antarctic expeditions had shrunk seahorses after only 14 months of social isolation. Likewise, adults with small social circles are more likely to develop memory loss and cognitive decline later in life.

Thus, human beings might no longer wander in nature, but social homeostasis is still essential for survival. Fortunately, as adaptable as the brain is in isolation, so may be with resocialization.

Your brain on social reconnection

Although only a few studies have explored the reversibility of anxiety and stress associated with isolation, they suggest that resocialization repairs these effects.

As of March 2020, much of Hawaii was staying at home. People were isolated from their friends and colleagues. Claire Caulfield / Civil Beat / 2020

One study, for example, found that once isolated marmosets initially had higher stress and cortisol levels when resocialized, but then recovered quickly. Adorable, the once isolated animals even spent more time grooming their new mates.

Social memory and cognitive function also appear to be highly adaptable.

Mouse and rat studies report that although animals cannot recognize a familiar friend immediately after short-term isolation, they quickly regain their memory after re-socializing.

And there may also be hope for those emerging from a socially distant lockdown. A recent Scottish study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found residents had some cognitive decline during the harshest weeks of lockdown, but quickly recovered once restrictions were relaxed.

Unfortunately, such studies are still rare. And while animal research is informative, it probably represents extreme scenarios since people weren’t totally isolated over the past year. Unlike mice stuck in cages, many in the United States have hosted virtual game nights and Zoom birthday parties (we’re lucky).

So get through the nervous elevator talks and pesky brain fog, because “non-social distancing” should reset your social homeostasis very soon.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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