The neuroscience behind why your brain may need time to adjust to ‘un-social distancing’
With COVID-19 vaccines working and restrictions lifting across the country, it’s finally time for those now vaccinated who’ve been hunkered down at home to ditch the sweatpants and reemerge from their Netflix caves. But your brain may not be so eager to dive back into your former social life.
In a national survey last fall, 36% of adults in the U.S. – including 61% of young adults – reported feeling “serious loneliness” during the pandemic. Statistics like these suggest people would be itching to hit the social scene.
So how can people be so lonely yet so nervous about refilling their social calendars?
Well, the brain is remarkably adaptable. And while we can’t know exactly what our brains have gone through over the last year, neuroscientists like me have some insight into how social isolation and resocialization affect the brain.
Social homeostasis – the need to socialize
Humans have an evolutionarily hardwired need to socialize – though it may not feel like it when deciding between a dinner invite and rewatching “Schitt’s Creek.”
From insects to primates, maintaining social networks is critical 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 connections – must be met. Small social networks can’t deliver those benefits, while large ones increase competition for resources and mates. Because of this, human brains developed specialized circuitry to gauge our relationships and make the correct adjustments – much like a social thermostat.
Social homeostasis involves many brain regions, 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 on Tinder when you crave … well, you get it.
So if people hunger for social connection like they hunger for food, what happens to the brain when you starve socially?
Your brain on social isolation
Scientists can’t shove people into isolation and look inside their brains. Instead, researchers rely on lab animals to learn more about social brain wiring. Luckily, because social bonds are essential in the animal kingdom, these same brain circuits are found across species.
One prominent effect of social isolation is – you guessed it – increased anxiety and stress.
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 recognize friends from foes. But your brain stores tremendous amounts of information and must remove 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 adulthood isolation impairs both social memory – like recognizing a familiar face – and working memory – like recalling a recipe while cooking.
So, human beings might not be roaming the wild anymore, but social homeostasis is still critical to survival. Luckily, as adaptable as the brain is to isolation, the same may be true with resocialization.
Unfortunately, studies like these are still sparse. And while animal research is informative, it likely represents extreme scenarios since people weren’t in total isolation over the last year. Unlike mice stuck in cages, many in the U.S. had virtual game nights and Zoom birthday parties (lucky us).
So power through the nervous elevator chats and pesky brain fog, because “un-social distancing” should reset your social homeostasis very soon.
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