By Tavishi Garodia
“We’re a social species. We really need others to survive.” – Stephanie Cacioppo, University of Chicago.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced billions of people to isolate themselves but how would social isolation impact humans and what would they be like once they emerge from the isolation periods? To answer this, let’s look at the impact of social isolation on two major areas affecting human beings -cognitive skills and immunity.
In 1972, a French scientist Michel Siffre conducted an experiment. He shut himself in a study room for 6 months which is still an unbeatable record. He jotted down the effects of the isolation on his mind. In one of his documents, Siffre mentions he could “barely string thoughts”. By the fifth month mark, he tried to befriend a mouse in a desperate attempt for company.
Social isolation usually impairs cognitive skills in much more insidious ways than these experiments relay.
To study the effects of social isolation on various parts of the brain, let’s look at an experiment conducted on mice, which, like humans, are social organisms. In a study in 2018, the mice were kept away from their kins for a few weeks. The mice that were kept away showed similar brain composition as those of an Alzheimer’s patient as compared to those who were in contact with their family members.
Thus, the experiment showed the effects of social isolation on parts of the brain such as cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. It also pointed out that the changes in neurological and chemical signalling in our brain is linked to social engagement .
EFFECTS OF SOCIAL ISOLATION ON BRAIN:
PREFRONTAL CORTEX: In some studies, lonely people have been found to have reduced brain volumes in the prefrontal cortex, a region important in decision making and social behavior, although other research suggests this relationship might be mediated by personality factors. Rodents that have been isolated from their conspecifics show dysregulated signaling in the prefrontal cortex.
HIPPOCAMPUS: People and other animals experiencing isolation may have smaller-than-normal hippocampi and reduced concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), both features associated with impaired learning and memory. Some studies indicate that levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which affects and is regulated by the hippocampus, are higher in isolated animals.
AMYGDALA: About a decade ago, researchers found a correlation between the size of a person’s social network and the volume of their amygdala, two almond-shaped brain areas associated with processing emotion. More recent evidence suggests the amygdalae are smaller in people who are lonely.
“Research really shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity.” -Awkley.
Human bodies are designed in a way that our bacteria gets trained to fight the bacteria of other humans as we grow old and interact in societies. This helps the body develop its immunity against various ailments. Thus, social isolation might have adverse effects on the fighting skills of bacteria rendering humans weak once the social interactions start again.
One of the worst effects of social isolation is loneliness which in turn impairs immunity. Loneliness switches on a lot of long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signaling, which negatively affects immune system functioning.
Simply, people who feel lonely have less immunity and more inflammation than people who don’t.