Science //

A socially-distanced animal: Why is social isolation so difficult?

Humanity's deeply ingrained instinct and nature to be social is behind many of our struggles during the past two years' lockdowns.

Art by Khanh Tran.

On 23 July 2021, thousands of people in Sydney defied strict lockdown orders and protested against having to stay at home and not socialise. Those demonstrating felt so strongly that they couldn’t comply with social distancing guidelines to the extent that they were willing to risk spreading COVID further to make their anger known. More protests followed, and over the next few months images of police clashing with lockdown protesters became part of our lives.

There were many reasons for their anger, but the protests also tapped into a wider frustration at not being able to socialise with one another.

But why? Is simply staying at home and not meeting people in person really that hard? On the face of it, just sitting at home doesn’t seem like much of an ask. And yet, as the pandemic has shown, not seeing one another in person is difficult.

How important socialising is to us has been thrown into focus over the past couple of years. Chatting, gossiping, and arguing with one another are universal, and part of what makes us human. That most people find social isolation difficult is indicative of the fact that being social is intrinsic to human nature. Humans have been called the tool-making animal and the intelligent animal, but it is equally true that we are the socialising animal.

Part of our collective memory of the pandemic will be the long periods of social isolation. If you had trouble during lockdown, it’s not altogether surprising, given that we are being deprived of something which is fundamental to us as a species. 

Socialising: the driving force behind human evolution

There are several theories about why humans got to have such large brains. 

One theory that attempts to explain our intensely social nature is called the ecological dominance-social competition model. In basic terms, it suggests that by living in tribes and cooperating to find food and evade predators, humans became so successful that we were no longer limited by the same factors as other animals. What is usually important when it comes to evolution just doesn’t matter as much when you have a large social group to support you. We get to depend on our relationships to provide us with what we need.

By living in tribes, humans began to divide labour so that no one was completely responsible for their own survival. Because we grew more reliant on our relationships to provide us with everything we need, physical characteristics which previously made mankind successful, like speed and strength, became less important in driving our evolution.

As such, our ability to form relationships and where we sat in the social hierarchy became more relevant. Being good at forming relationships, cooperating, influencing, and deceiving are far more helpful to an individual’s chances of success in life than being able to catch fish or run away from a lion. Thus, the focus of human evolution shifted to our ability to communicate and be social.

Living in large social groups requires us to understand a complex web of relationships, which alsorequires a lot of brain power. Being able to remember what your relationships are in a social group, and understanding how they affect you, is vital to our success as individuals.

In order to cope, our brains have increased in size a great deal over the past two million years. Now, they devote as much energy to managing our social relationships as they do to other survival skills.

If the driving force behind our evolution over two million years has been improving our ability to socialise with one another, suddenly forcing people to isolate deprives them of something which has become fundamentally human. It’s not surprising that people become stressed when socially isolated; our survival depends on being connected to the wider tribe.

Our brains are literally hungry for social contact

Whether you agree with the theory or not, you can’t argue with what we’ve ended up with: a brain which devotes a lot of energy to communication and social bonding. This explains why social isolation feels so wrong.

For millions of years we have grown ever more dependent on our fellow humans for pretty much everything we need. It’s therefore unsurprising that we feel an emotional dependence as well. Alongside our evolution towards more complex and interdependent social groups, psychological needs have also developed, needs which drive us to connect with people.

This is why we found lockdown hard: our brains are hard-wired to socialise.

There are chemicals in our brain which function purely to enhance our relationships. There is, for instance, a hormone in our brain called oxytocin (also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’), which impacts and enhances bonding behaviour and the creation of social memories. There are also emotions themselves, like guilt and embarrassment, which only make sense when you take other people’s reactions and viewpoints into account.

A recent study at MIT found that the brains of people isolated for just 10 hours react to the sight of other people having fun together the same way a hungry person does when shown a plate of pasta. The longing for social contact during isolation shares a neural basis with what we feel when we crave food. So as we can become hungry for food, we can also become hungry for social interaction.

This explains why in prisons solitary confinement is one of the cruellest punishments.. Although it may not seem like much of a punishment to sit alone in a cell for a few hours, psychologists have deemed it a literal form of torture. Our brains are simply not meant to be deprived of social contact for extended periods of time. 

COVID is transmitted person to person, meaning the most effective way to combat its spread is not coming into contact with one another. This is not ideal for a species which has been described as ‘hyper-social.’ It is, however, important to remember that if social isolation will be your strongest memory of the pandemic, you’re comparatively lucky. Millions of people have lost their lives to the virus, and millions more have lost loved ones. Our socially hard-wired brains mean that being socially isolated can be very difficult, but in the case of COVID, staying inside and not socialising to protect other members of the wider tribe became the most socially conscious action.