COVID-19 Pandemic: What does isolation do to the brain?

Does being alone at home make a person go insane? After weeks of social distancing, people locked up in their homes may be getting bored and restless. Attending school, going out to eat, hanging out with friends  — parts of their lives that are normal  — are no longer possible. The world waits for these extremely necessary restrictions to be lifted. However, for people who are used to socializing regularly, this task proves to be difficult. Psychologists have determined that social isolation eventually has a lasting effect on one’s physical and mental health. 

The Science Behind The Human’s Social Brain

The “social brain hypothesis” states that humans and other primates have larger brains because they need the processing space for the complex social networks that they hold. 

A study at the University of Oxford led by anthropologist Robin Dunbar was conducted to find out if the relationship between the anatomy of the brain and the type of social life that each of the forty volunteers had held. Through magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scanning and information about the amount of social contact that each subject had in the previous week, Dunbar was able to determine that the orbital prefrontal cortex was proportional to the amount of social contact. The orbital prefrontal cortex is generally associated with emotion and decision-making. Thus, damage to this part of the brain would mean that the individual would be terrible with interacting with others. 

So with little to no social interaction, how does the brain react?

The Effects of COVID-19 Isolation and Social Distancing

Loneliness in humans occurs often. One type is reactive loneliness which can develop after moving to a new location or losing someone close to you. This type of loneliness can be eased with psychological help. However, without treatment, there is a risk of it being chronic. This is likely if someone does not have access to various resources — emotional and financial— or if they lack a social circle. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates have risen which means many people are under immense financial pressure and cannot afford certain resources to help their mental health. And if some are able to afford the help, it is likely that many places that offer professional help are closed. Unfortunately, this has many detrimental effects. 

Lack of social interaction has proven to trigger pain in the prefrontal cortex; this pain is similar to a sharp, throbbing sensation. Further long term effects include problems with sleep and depression. Isolation has also has a correlation with a weakened immunity as white blood cells found in those with little social interaction have been inflamed. Lack of encouragement from family or friends could lead an individual into unhealthy habits, such as not sticking to a diet or not exercising. 

Although many are lucky enough to have a loving family to interact with daily, others are not. According to a Pew Research Survey, 28% of people dissatisfied with their family life feel lonely. Thus, social interaction does not just mean having people around, it means to actually form a connection with them. 

So, if isolation does have a negative impact on an individual’s physical and mental health, what can be done about it?

Fortunately, this pandemic is taking place during the twenty-first century. Many people have the internet at their fingertips. If the usual activities have been shut down, consider looking on the internet. Many gyms have provided online training so that you could keep fit at home. Online clubs have been created to connect people all over the globe. Try video chatting instead with friends or family if you are used to texting. Seeing their faces would help you maintain that bond that you have with them. And if you don’t have anyone to chat with, make some new friends. Find people that you share interests with. It could be from creative writing to play the kazoo. Doing research on the internet will help you connect with others who are feeling the exact same emotions you are. And although it will take a good amount of time, one day will we be able to leave our homes and return to our regular lives. 

Works Cited 

Adolphs, R. The social brain: neural basis of social knowledge. Accessed 18 April 2020. 

Bialik, K. Americans unhappy with family, social or financial life are more likely to say they feel lonely.

Dunbar, R. I. M., & Barton, R. A. Primate comparative neuroscience using magnetic resonance imaging: promises and challenges. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2014

Novotney, A. American. The risks of social isolation. American Psychological Association, May 2019

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