A man alone in the wilderness


Most of us experience loneliness. The need to be with others helps us survive, but when the threat of disease drives us apart, our public health policies confront the germs of crowding but not the gloom  of loneliness. Loneliness doesn’t mean we’re sick, though it might lead to sickness. It can become an affliction, and it’s not isolation itself that kills, but the emotion, the loneliness.

Plants space themselves out according to rainfall. Humans lack such a gauge for distance. Both crowding and isolation can leave us worse off.

Overcrowding is a stressor that increases obesity in mice and changes the brains of urban humans. On the other hand, the social distancing that is part of behavioral immunity may sometimes be associated with chronic inflammation in the body.

So we want to be not too close and not too distant. This goldilocks principle applies in many circumstances: Housing density should be not too crowded but not too sparse. The stress of dealing with others must be neither too intense nor below threshold if we are to benefit from it. Whether you call it moderation or homeostasis, we imagine there’s a sweet spot for our response to challenges. Ancient processes of adjustment, whether you label them adaptation, habituation, or Le Chatelier’s principle should position us near the sweet spot to keep us sensitive to changes around us.

Of course such a sweet spot is an abstraction that in reality varies from one person, one culture, and one situation to another. For example, how will social distancing be interpreted in different countries? For a fictional illustration, the character Seinfeld was OK with close talkers but the real Seinfeld was threatened by huggers.

Currently we are urged to practice a form of behavioral immunity called social distancing that will have extreme effects for some people. It’s worth a look at what is going on.

Image of an old woman with a resigned expression

BIO: Although the term “isolation” has often been used carelessly, there is ample evidence that restricted experience affects the development of both brain and behavior, including the maternal deprivation studies of the Harlows, environmental enrichment studies of Krech, Rosenzweig, Bennett, and Diamond, sensory deprivation studies of Riesen and Blakemore, and others.

In particular, social experience has been credited as a guiding influence in the evolution of bigger brains, although skeptics abound, and other factors, including nutrition and cooking, have been highlighted as well, and it’s risky to assume too readily that bigger means better. Now, in fact, our brains may be getting smaller because our bodies are getting smaller, although brains have lately exceeded the rest of the body in shrinking, excepting perhaps the frontal lobes. It’s tempting to speculate that the brain can shrink because it has offloaded its social responsibilities to our gut microbes, explained here, although a “bigger” explanation may lurk in our social organizations, which have become so sophisticated that they allow us to offload cognitive tasks to society. This may include the Internet.

Anyway, social isolation can have damaging effects on the brain. In addition to shrinking the brain, isolation contributes to inflammation, particularly through the mediation of the cytokine IL-6 (interleukin 6). Since causation in the brain is often complicated, it should not be shocking to find also that inflammation may cause loneliness that could, in turn, make us more susceptible to catching an infection!

Since social contact is so important, there are brain mechanisms to enhance its benefits. Social isolation elevates levels of the hormone oxytocin, which increases resilience to some forms of isolation. Oxytocin may mediate the effects of social buffering, which is the comforting effect of having a companion (or many companions) nearby.

Incidentally, it is no longer excusable to label oxytocin as the “cuddle chemical”. You can review its effects here and there. The simplistic notion of a cuddle factor is being replaced by more interesting dual-process models of oxytocin and testosterone or vasopressin. Although oxytocin is available from online suppliers as a nasal spray, it’s a risky tool even for a physician, though some are open to considering it, perhaps without full consideration of its replicated side effects.

PSYCHO: Social distancing is not a new term, but it has taken on new urgency with the threat of contagious infection when we crowd together. With distancing we lose the reassurance of touch and the emotional feedback from eye contact that our social brains have come to rely on. For some people, social distancing may bring a sense of loneliness, perhaps most among the elderly.

We can talk about distancing bringing on loneliness because social isolation and loneliness are not the same. Some people are happy loners and others can feel lonely in a crowd. Social isolation and quarantine are not the same, either. We isolate sick people and quarantine well people, on the whole, and all of these terms can differ from social distancing.

Loneliness and isolation occur together so often that they are often confused. Loneliness is an emotional trait, a predisposition, whereas social isolation—distancing—is a situation. Though loneliness may sometimes be beneficial, its unpleasantness makes it an adaptive trait, since it drives us to seek the company of others. Besides being adaptive, it is apparently a heritable trait, and so we may think of loneliness as having evolved. If you should raise an objection that social contact spreads disease, it’s worth considering the health dangers of social isolation as well.

That is, it’s normal to feel lonely when we’re isolated, and a lack of social contract growing up may force us onto an abnormal path of development.

Loneliness is a complex emotion. Its effects vary with our experience and our expectations. Becoming familiar with it may help to blunt the effects of the quarantine that many of us entered during the coronavirus pandemic. We may even find that, like a virus, quarantine effects are themselves contagious.

Social isolation has often been used to punish people who threaten or offend us. In what context do we force isolation upon inoffensive throngs? Does the end justify the means? We do it willingly, most of us, just as scientists have endured isolation to study its effects.

Yet are the brain disturbances of extreme isolation, which may arise even with moderate isolation, an acceptable punishment for the worst offenders? While we consider the hardships of self-quarantine for ourselves, we may also think about the catastrophe of solitary confinement.

SOCIAL: Did human sociality evolve?

To say that social intentions evolved we need to establish that the behavior has some genetic basis (to allow transmission across generations) and some adaptive advantage to promote our survival. You could pick out selfishness or altruism as a behavioral trait, for example; the evidence is better for altruism but does exist for the opposite (diagnose yourself here).

Sociality is a broad but undeniable part of our behavioral evolution. It has a long history and many facets. On the one hand, we want to bond; on another, we need to avoid loneliness. We want to do it as efficiently as possible.

Of course this involves more than one kind of behavior. To prove genetic transmission we would want to tease the behaviors apart, selecting one after another for examination: altruism, selfish fairness, nurturance, and so on, certainly including cooperation.

Collective behavior took over functions that individuals had once maintained, forcing a choice on all of us, wolves and humans, about when to be an individual and when to be a member of the pack.

Genes direct the development of the individual, along with experience. What directs the development of the group, to make it successful? Some would argue for caring and diversity, not because it’s nice but because it works. It makes the group smarter.

This is not the same as saying that social behavior is human nature. If human nature is thought of as an inner essence, it doesn’t exist. We’re free to think of human nature as a set of statistical averages, but perish the thought that there is a human nature that is superior to animal nature. We are part of the animal kingdom.

There is no permanent human nature, though the underlying belief, essentialism, goes back centuries. Like many ancient beliefs, we are better off thinking of them as metaphors., but watch out for uncritical references to human nature in newspapers, or labeling social behavior as “intrinsic” or “instinctive” or “hard-wired”. There is no behavior that is exclusively innate or totally acquired. The interaction of genes with the environment begins at conception and continues through life.

We are fortunate in psychology for an effort not to “essentialize” psychological disorders the way we do with physical disorders.

We see it today in the prices of celebrity memorabilia and accepting organ transplants or other people’s clothing and the belief that different sexes and races are not humans in the same sense of the word.

British psychologist Bruce Hood has offered the interesting insight that modern psychodiagnosis may be making the problem of essentialism worse again!

And then there are others. Don’t be misled by followers of Humpty Dumpty’s theory of word meaning who try to make essentialism mean whatever they like.

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