This virus is a true biopsychosocial disaster – very similar to the impact of chronic pain when we can no longer participate in active social lives or our favorite pursuits – but I don’t see anyone suggesting we are catastrophizing about it.
Humans evolved to be social with one another, and we function best when we have strong relationships and regular social contact.
However, in many cities, half or more of the inhabitants live alone, and in the current COVID-19 pandemic, people are additionally deprived of in-person interactions at work and social gatherings.
It is a good time to remind ourselves of the far-reaching impacts of loneliness and find ways to mitigate it.
This week in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Bzdok and Dunbar reviewed the consequences of social isolation and what we know about its neurobiology.
Social connectivity is a huge factor in life expectancy.
- Social isolation increases the risk of dying within the next decade by 25%.
- The death of someone close, like a spouse, increases the likelihood of death in the immediate future by more than 15%.
Severe social deprivation also shortens our telomeres, which are like caps on the DNA of every cell. Shortening telomeres are linked to aging.
And once the telomeres are shortened they can never be expanded to their original state again. This is one of the processes that incrementally, but relentlessly, degrade our bodies as we age.
Social connectivity is also related to immune function and physical health.
In both humans and other primates, social belonging is related to
- stronger immune responses,
- faster wound healing,
- better regulation of stress hormones,
- lower systolic blood pressure,
- lower body mass index, and
- less inflammation.
Finally, social connectivity protects against depression.
I think they need to be much more precise about what they consider “social interaction”. Hearing is one level, seeing another, but physical closeness and touch are also essential for me.
Until now, I had no idea that the physical presence of others, true human contact with all 5 senses, is a fundamental need for me.
I miss hugs hello and hugs goodbye, sitting shoulder to shoulder working on something together, a hand on my shoulder comforting me, long conversations leaning close together.
I miss the contagious energy of a “bunch of people” hanging out together, talking to my “neighbors” while standing in line or waiting together, and even though I was rarely able to do it anymore, I miss the friendly jostling of dancing at parties.
People with a history of depression are 25% less likely to become depressed again if they belong to one social group (like a sports club, church, hobby group, or charity). If they belong to three social groups, their risk is decreased by around 67%.
One caveat for many of these large-scale human studies is that they involve correlation instead of causation.
We now understand a little better what’s going on in the brain.
Advances in neuroscience have shown that social cognition recruits areas such as the default mode network(related to identity, reflection, etc.) and the limbic system (involved in emotion, motivation, and threat processing).
Social isolation affects the brain just as much as the body—the shape and size of the limbic system change with our level of social isolation, and it also affects communication within the default mode network, and between the default mode network and the limbic system.
Research shows that people’s social tendencies are similar online. We seek out social interaction with the same frequency and have a similar social network as in real life.
The problem with online interaction is that it is lower quality: until the rise of video chats, we couldn’t even pick up on facial expression and body language, which are important nonverbal cues.
Meanwhile, our social lives have gone digital.
In short, nothing can fully replace face-to-face interaction, but digital communication does help to alleviate loneliness to some degree.
We must take our social connections seriously, individually, and as a society. During times of social isolation like the current pandemic, this is especially important, but trends of urban living and aging populations mean that it is an issue we will be dealing with for years to come.
Community organizations and hobby groups are crucial to preserving social interaction and community in this regard, as they can help to protect against social isolation.
Bzdok and Dunbar. The Neurobiology of Social Distance. Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2020). Access the original scientific publication here.