Keep your distance but stay social

“Man is by nature a social animal.” So spoke Aristotle in the early fourth century B.C.E. Today, this sentiment still holds true. We engage ourselves in relationships with others, and we share thoughts and experiences all the time. We do this out of need: our social nature asks us to do so and we cannot ignore it. But what happens when our social possibilities are severely limited?

This post is also available in Dutch.

We are facing an unexpected, challenging time. Confinement, thuisisolatie … different words to express the condition of social isolation that people around the world are experiencing. We are asked to stay home and enjoy the “perks of smart working” (tons of postponed alarms and work meetings in our comfy pyjamas). But mainly we must reduce or, in some cases, even avoid contact with others. Sounded feasible, eh? But after a week – or two – you may not have been so sure.

According to statistics, since social isolation began, reports of depression and irritability have spiked tremendously. 

Why are we so sensitive to social isolation?

Social neuroscientists are asking this question. This species of homo neuroscientist, armed with complex cognitive tasks and expensive neuroimaging tools, studies where the social factor lies in the human brain. An entire brain circuitry for sociability has been mapped – exactly between our frontal and temporal cortices. But even more interesting is what happens in this social-brain circuit during interpersonal exchanges. A simple one-on-one interaction seems apparently sufficient to have dopamine flowing throughout our social-brain. Dopamine acts as a reward for our brains and can motivate us. On the other hand, when social interactions are scarce, the opportunities for such a dopamine rush become rare too. The dopamine deficit is what eventually makes us feel down and demotivated.

How have people reinvented socialization in a time of social restriction? And how does it affect our brains?

The ban on social gathering called for alternatives to usual chit-chat and meet-ups with friends. Zoom and Skype, among others, became the new public squares. From birthday parties to weekend toasts, we are able to enjoy social contact – expect now that it’s all virtual. In the virtual environment, we are able to catch up with many people, from different places, and at the same time.

Virtual social interactions, however, can take quite a toll on our social brains. In fact, while face-to-face interactions heavily rely on body language and spatial cues, (almost) all these are missing when we move online. Without these social cues, it becomes, for example, more difficult to respect taking turns in conversation. Things get even more complicated when more than 3 people join a virtual hang-out. Our eyes shift from one box (a.k.a. our friend’s face) to another to understand overall reactions to the topics on the “table.” The result? Tiredness and recurrent attention lapses. These virtual catch-ups push the social-brain circuitry to rely on extra neural resources to face the higher cognitive demand.

Notwithstanding, for dopamine, nothing actually seems to change. The feeling of connectedness – although virtual – is enough to obtain that much appreciated dopamine reward. These online meetings are, indeed, one good antidote to the downs of social withdrawal. It is clear that we cannot turn a blind eye to our social needs. Even when socializing becomes quite demanding, we appear well-equipped to fulfil our social nature and get the related rewards.

Author: Martina Arenella
Buddy: Rebecca Calcott
Editor: Christienne Damatac
Translator: Felix Klaassen
Editor Translator: Floortje Bouwkamp

Photo credit: Featured image by jagriparajuli99 via Pixabay.

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