We know from brain science that human beings are wired to be social, so it is not a surprise that the necessity of social distancing, brought about by the coronavirus on such a grand scale, is a challenge for so many of us. Better, perhaps, for us to have termed our life saving technique as “physical distancing while maintaining social connection”. This shift in perspective is key to keeping our spirits up and our thoughts and emotions balanced while we navigate this uncharted territory. With science and technology available at our fingertips we are more equipped than ever to manage the social challenges of this pandemic.
Social connection and social cohesion are woven into the fabric of our lives as well as the neural networks in our brains. Typically, we spend a lot of time and energy investing in our social relationships. It has been well researched and documented that a lack of social connection has a significant negative impact on our health and well-being.
Social and emotional processing is localized in the outer layer of the brain, the neocortex, which is the newest (neo) part of our brain to develop. Part of the neocortex, the frontal lobe, is responsible for abstract reasoning, conscious thought and emotion, planning and organization, and is highly developed in humans. One reason for the substantial growth of the neocortex, 76% of our brain’s weight, may be that humans adapted this way in response to the demands of living in large, close-knit groups. In primates, the size of the neocortex relative to other brain areas increases in almost direct proportion to the average size of the social group.
In fact, the acute disruption of ties through social exclusion has a marked effect on our thoughts and feelings, and hence brain responses. This neural responsiveness to exclusion is thought to help maintain social bonds. A recent study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrated that both loneliness and hunger share signals deep in the part of the brain that governs basic impulses for reward and motivation. It suggests that our need to connect is apparently as fundamental as our need to eat.
When we don’t get our social needs met it can lead us into a state of fear, confusion, anger and, even aggressive behavior. Losing social connection can make it easy to also lose the motivation to eat healthy, be active and practice good self-care.
To physically mingle is to risk our own lives and the lives of others. As others have noted, “between 1939-1944, generations before us were asked to serve by going to war while we are being asked to serve by sitting on our couches!” So, what can we do to keep our social bellies full?
Perhaps the best people to mentor and guide us through this time are astronauts who have spent inordinate amounts of time in social isolation.
Astronaut Anne McClain tweeted that “We are all astronauts on planet Earth together. We’ll be successful in confinement if we are intentional about our actions and deliberate about caring for our teams.”
In an article written in the Washington Post, astronauts Christina Koch, Chris Hatfield and Scott Kelly shared the ways they were able to maintain social connection while out in space. Some of their creative approaches included: going beyond voice chatting and connecting in real time for face to face communication, doing physical exercises at the same time as people on earth and holding digital jam sessions with people who were remote from them.
Building on the creative approaches of these astronauts, here are some practical ideas on how to stay engaged in relationship while you are asked to physically distance:
In some ways we have the best-case scenario for what is the worst-case scenario any of would have imagined. We have electricity, refrigeration, internet and methods of social cohesion and communication which are all assisting us to navigate our new world as pleasantly as it is possible to do. We have access to useful and impactful technology and an understanding of the science of why it is so necessary to use it.