Stay at home. Don’t visit friends and family, and don’t have them visit you. Keep clear of strangers.

These don’t sound like particularly challenging instructions. If anything, you’d think people would be rather keen on social isolation. It’s nice to have a genuine government-mandated excuse to stay in and avoid all the stress that goes with going out and dealing with other people…

Except, if you look at the news, at social media, or even out of the window at times, it’s clear that a lot of people are struggling with the whole ‘social isolation’ thing. Why? What could be difficult about not going to work and not engaging with others?

As it happens, everything. We humans are an incredibly social species, arguably more so than any other on Earth. Our brains have evolved for socialisation in a variety of different ways, which means this social isolation instruction is a pretty big ask, with a number of potential consequences.

Our brains have evolved for socialisation

Why do humans have such big, smart resource-hungry brains at all? Why are our brains capable of such a high level of intelligence when, as far as we can tell, no other kind in nature is?

There are a lot of theories around this, but one of the more prominent ones is the ecological dominance-social competition model. This argues that early human tribes were so communal, so cooperative, so successful that they neutralised all the natural factors that usually drive evolution.

Predators? Finding food? Or mates? When you were born into a human tribe, none of these things were an issue, others took care of it, so they weren’t a threat to your survival, so ‘traditional’ natural selection is disrupted.

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What did determine an individual’s chances of success, and therefore mating, spreading our genes, and ultimately driving human evolution was how well we performed within the tribe. How good you are at forming relationships, cooperating, communicating, influencing, even deceiving; these were the things that dictated human success now.

And these things required greater intelligence. Running from a predator requires physical skill; keeping track of all your friendships, your commitments, your debts and responsibilities, in a group of individuals all as smart as you? That requires a lot more cognitive processing power.

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And thus, the human brain increased dramatically in size and power, particularly over the last two million years. Because we needed intelligence in order to socialise.

That’s one theory anyway. Not everyone agrees with it. But it’s hard to dispute that a lot of parts of the brain seem to exist largely to facilitate social bonding and communication.

The chemical oxytocin, aka ‘the cuddle hormone’, has a range of functions in the brain that enhance interpersonal bonds. We have a part of the visual cortex, the fusiform gyrus, dedicated to detecting and reading faces.

Other parts of the brain, like the anterior insular cortex, are responsible for empathy, the ability to detect someone’s emotional state and experience it ourselves. There are even emotions themselves, like guilt and embarrassment, that only make sense when you take other people’s reactions and viewpoints into account.

Our brains are clearly very social in nature. Depriving them of social contact may be fundamentally unsettling.

Our brains depend on social contact

In many movies based in prisons (The Shawshank Redemption is the most obvious example here), there’s invariably a scene or at least mention of ‘solitary confinement'. This is where a prisoner is kept in an isolated cell and denied any meaningful contact with other inmates or even prison staff.

Doesn’t sound like much of a punishment, but psychologists have deemed to be a literal form of torture. As stated, the human brain has seemingly evolved for socialisation. So, denying it social contact is depriving it of something it deems vital. Studies have revealed that a socially isolated person shows brain activity that’s very similar to literal hunger, even after a mere 10 hours of no social contact.

Even the most fleeting social interaction can cause the brain to experience low-level pleasure. And while most other social species bond via grooming, prominent anthropologists suggest that the human equivalent is gossiping, and that may even be a big factor in why we evolved language in the first place; it would take hours each day to groom everyone in a large human tribe, but you can say nice things to all of them at once.

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Our interactions with others also shape our ideas and understandings of both the world around us, and ourselves. We take our cue for the right thing to do from those around us, we base our understanding on what’s correct or appropriate from the groups we belong to. This is why ‘the guy in the pub told me’ often has more influence than countless faceless studies and academic texts.

Indeed, social isolation can cause stress, even to the point where it disrupts brain development (in younger members of social species) and leads to mental health problems later in life.

This isn’t to say that these things will definitely happen during the current pandemic. These are extreme examples of what can happen.

But they do show that the human brain is very reliant on social interactions and gets a lot from them. Cutting these off so abruptly isn’t going to be pleasant or easy, so it’s no wonder people are finding it difficult.

“I won’t go out” vs “You can’t go out”

It’s not that the human brain needs constant, never-ending socialisation. Much as we enjoy it, social interactions do still take time, energy and effort, and the brain can’t sustain this indefinitely. That’s why, as social as we are, we still need privacy as well, in a fundamental way.

Now, we’ve arguably got more privacy than we could ever want. And nobody seems happy about it, with countless people chomping at the bit to mingle, or livestreaming their every waking moment to everyone who’ll listen.

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A lot of this can be attributed to a sense of autonomy. One thing the human brain finds typically reassuring and rewarding is a sense of control, the ability to make decisions and determine one’s own actions and situations. That’s why there’s a big difference between choosing to stay at home, and being told to stay at home.

The latter means a loss of autonomy. You’re no longer in control of your own life or situation. And that’s stressful, at the subconscious level. Add that to the fact that you’re being denied socialisation, which is also stressful, and you can see why some might struggle to just put up with this.

It’s a well-known human phenomenon, that of ‘reactance’, which is where when humans are told they can’t have or do something, they’re instinctively motivated to want it more. We’re a contrary lot, but it does mean that being told we can’t socialise will directly lead to an increased desire to do so. And that desire was already pretty strong.

Social media and the web: an acceptable substitute?

It’s lucky this pandemic happened now, in 2020, because at least our society has developed various ways to keep in touch remotely, via technology. It’s interesting to see how social media has gone from, in many people’s eyes, the scourge of society to its saviour in less than a fortnight.

Social media and video streaming software and the like, can they fill the gap, or satisfy the craving, that results from a loss of physical social contact? People have been using them in interesting and creative ways, admittedly. But is it enough? That’s harder to say.

So much of human communication and interaction is nonverbal, via body language, eye contact, expressions, tones, and so on. How many of these are effectively conveyed by remote communication? Not all of them, undoubtedly.

And the human brain is very quick and sensitive to even minor discrepancies in communication. We’re very good at recognising a fake smile, or laugh, and when something is very close to the human norm, but not quite right in terms of all the subtle cues and traits, it tends to freak us out, hence the 'Uncanny Valley' effect.

But even if social media and other forms of remote communication aren’t giving our brain everything they’re used to, it’s still surely better than nothing. They’re likely to be staving off the more tangible problems of social isolation, and surely that’s no bad thing.

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Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.