What Social Distancing Means for Humans

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe and the world’s governments try to keep the cases at bay, a new phrase has cropped up: social distancing. In a nutshell, it means keeping away from people to limit the spread of infection, particularly when transmitted through the air.

For many of us, this means staying at home when we’d normally be out and about – whether it be shopping, dining out, or simply going to work. Some governments have outright prohibited all non-essential travel (the definition of essential, of course, is up for debate), meaning that for many of us, the normal social contact we would have with other people is at an absolute minimum.

At first, the introvert in me would want to think of this as a good thing; who wants to have to interact with other people anyway? But as the days wear on, it becomes increasingly evident that, even for the most antisocial among us, human contact is an essential part of our nature.

You see, humans – like many, many other animals – are inherently social creatures. We thrive when we are in a community, and perish in isolation. There’s a great deal of study into the psychology of this, but the bottom line is that people need each other to stay sane.

If this is the case, then what happens when we are forced into isolation? Whilst many of us are in isolation with a few other people, there are nonetheless some of us – those who live alone – who now have no physical connection to other people for days, if not weeks, at a time. Even if you live with someone, the limited social interaction of just a couple of other people is no comparison to the wealth of stimuli that comes from being able to simply talk to different people, with different perspectives, throughout your day.

Even as a fairly hardcore introvert (I get easily exhausted interacting with people), my day is usually filled with human interaction and socialization, and I use alone time to recuperate. Now that I’m working from home, the conversations with my colleagues and clients are at a bare minimum, and I find myself at times bored to tears.

Perhaps the only good news is that this particular pandemic has hit us at a time when we’re still able to socialize to a reasonable degree remotely, through technology. In fact, for our children, who are so used to socializing virtually, I suspect this quarantine is having a significantly lesser impact that it has had on adults who grew up having to interact in person. Through FaceTime, social media and online servers, we’re able to at the very least get the input from others that create intellectual stimulus, even if we aren’t benefiting from the more visceral reactions of being able to physically see, hear, and speak to others in person.

I have regular virtual meetings for my work, as does my wife; my son is taking online classes from school through which he can directly interact with his teachers. I can call, text, or message people anytime I like. I can still interact.

But none of this replaces the need we have for physical human interaction, and I worry that society as a whole may soon face a terrible choice: do we maintain our physical health at the expense of our mental health, or do we venture out and about, risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus, just to stay sane?

There are no easy answers at a time like this, but with COVID-19 seeming unlikely to disappear anytime soon, there may be some drastic changes that will have to be made, simply in order to protect the survival of human society. And what happens when the next viral outbreak comes? What happens when a plague of considerably greater deadliness comes around? Without sounding too apocalyptical about it, humanity may have never faced a greater threat to our overall societal well-being.

What are your thoughts? How will we survive this, mentally and physically? And what do you think the long-term prospects for our culture and civilization are?

Thought of the Week: What’s Going on in There?

I have a confession to make. It’s kind of a big deal, and it’s taking me a lot of courage to share this with you all, so please don’t laugh. Are you ready? Here goes:

I may not, in fact, be entirely sane.

What’s that? You already knew? How insulting.

Okay, fair enough. Most of us are pretty whacked out at times, and sanity is in the eye of the psychologist. Although I kind of think they’re nuts too.

Who does a therapist go to for therapy? Is there some kind of super-therapist? Maybe Batman goes to see him.

Anyway, it occurred to me quite some time ago that my brain is up to no good, and I’m the one stuck with the consequences. For example, sometimes my brain tells me that my life is not worth living, that I’ve brought nothing but pain and misery on everyone around me, and that they’d all be better off if I didn’t even exist.

Anyone else ever have those thoughts? Congratulations, you’re insane too.

Other times, my brain tells me that it’s a good idea to lie down on the floor in a ball while my wife screams at me to stop lying on the floor in a ball. It seems to think that she’s using some kind of reverse psychology, and in fact wants me to stay down there. Just to make sure, my brain won’t let me move for several hours afterwards. If I try, it makes my tummy feel bad.

Takers, anyone? Maybe you’re slightly saner than you thought.

There are, of course, the times when my brain lets me think that things are going all right, that life is good, and that the writing I’m doing is strong. It even convinces me that just around the corner, if I hang on a little bit longer, might be fame and fortune as a world-reknown author.

In the words of Homer Simpson, Stupid brain.

Now scientists are doing some pretty awesome stuff at working out just what’s going on in there. They discovered that the funny-looking wrinkly lump of gook inside your head is actually an incredibly complex network of neurons and connections, forming literally trillions of possible pathways for electrical conductivity. Sort of like the wiring in our basement. They worked out that this little bit of the brain in the back called the cerebellum is responsible for motor control. If this bit gets damaged, you can’t really move anymore. There are some pretty nasty genetic diseases that do this.

They also worked out how the neuronal system works (sort of). Ions pass in and out of the neuronal cells, carrying charge with them. When the charge reaches a joining point, it makes the cell spit out a whole host of chemicals so that the next cell can pick them up. These chemicals, or “neurotransmitters” (big air quotes), kind of make sure signals go where they’re supposed to. Sometimes the insulation on these neurons breaks down, and the charge sort of leaks out. This means not as much gets to the next cell, and all sorts of things go wrong. Multiple sclerosis does this.

Stupid multiple sclerosis.

And sometimes, the brain just messes up completely, and spits out too much neurotransmitter, or not enough, or the wrong damn kind. Now, figuring out why this happens is still being worked on. Ironically, some of the drugs that are supposed to help with this aren’t even fully understood themselves. Chlorpromazine was intended as an anesthetic in the fifties; it turned out to be more useful as an antipsychotic in schizophrenic patients.

So we’re sort of trying to figure it all out. The scientists are working on it from a chemical point of view (my wife conducts research on a particular type of chemical sensor with important roles in learning and memory); the shrinks are working on it from a cognitive point of view; the priests are working on it from a god point of view.

But in the end, my brain is still kind of messed up. It makes me do these pretty odd things, like repeating phrases over and over again, shaking when I’m upset (getting upset, a lot), feeling generally miserable and depressed, actually enjoying feeling miserable and depressed, and consistently doing things that I know are going to cause major problems down the line. I checked it out; I don’t really quite fit depression; I don’t really quite fit bipolar; I don’t really quite fit asperger’s; I don’t really quite fit schizophrenia (I have an uncle who is, though; he barks at the moon and is otherwise a lovely guy).

It could be some time before someone works out what’s going on with my brain. It could be the scientists; it could be the shrinks. It could be my wife, though I think she’d just as much rather I get rid of the damn thing entirely, and upgrade to a new one. I sort of agree – it is getting a little long in the tooth.

Until then, though, I guess I’ll just let my brain figure itself out. If it can’t, it’s no membrane off my frontal lobe.

Hey – maybe your brains can help! What do you think my brain is up to?