A neurophilosophical perspective on social distancing
Image by Flore W from Pixabay
Image by Flore W from Pixabay
A neurophilosophical perspective on social distancing

Excerpts from the full article published in Areo Magazine

By Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan, Head of the 'Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme'

The COVID19 pandemic is poised to become the single most disruptive event of our generation. The current epidemic is, rather ominously, occurring just over a century after the Spanish flu, considered the deadliest pandemic in history. To slow the spread of the virus, hundreds of millions of people around the world are now officially in some form of isolation and have been asked to practice social distancing.

Social distancing is a “public health practice that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people in order to reduce opportunities for disease transmission.” Rationally, for most people, it is now clear that social distancing is critical in the midst of a pandemic—indeed, it is a matter of survival. Yet, social distancing remains a dreadful imposition to most people.


Neurophilosophy of Social Distancing

We have always known that we are deeply social beings and Aristotle’s famous saying that “man is by nature a social animal” has been an accepted dictum for millennia. Insights from neuroscience now allow us to understand this in deeper ways—and quite literally. We are for the first time able to grasp how social isolation and social interaction are expressed neurochemically, and the kind of neuroanatomical changes that occur in our brains in isolation/loneliness and in social interactions.

The impact of isolation has not yet been studied in the context of the current pandemic, but we can draw on previous research on some groups, such as astronauts, people placed in solitary confinement (who experience damage to certain cognitive functions) and Antarctica researchers, to understand some of the detrimental effects associated with prolonged isolation. 


Ancestral Fears, Power and Human Nature

While these findings cannot be taken deterministically, they can be corroborated by many similar studies on the impact of isolation. Recent research at MIT has identified a cluster of cells located at the back of the brain, in an area called the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), which are believed to be responsible for the feeling of loneliness. Moreover, experiments showed that, when mice were housed together, neurons in the DRN region were not very active. However, a period of prolonged isolation made these neurons sensitized to social contact and, when animals were reunited again, activity in the DRN surged.

Our aversion to practising social distancing now—and, most likely, over the coming months—is also to be understood in the framework of this neuronal mechanism that pushes us to seek social contact even more after isolation (or, in this case, the anticipation and fear of prolonged isolation). The MIT researchers’ elaborate description of their findings suggests that “in response to situations of social isolation or loneliness, individuals are motivated to re-establish social contact and pay greater attention to social stimuli.” This is backed by other research, which showed that socially excluded individuals showed an enhanced memory for social events, a mechanism analogous to the way in which physical hunger results in selective memory for food; similarly, social hunger and the need to belong will lead to a selective memory for social stimuli.

Research at the MIT has also shown that the feeling of isolation is not experienced uniformly and that relations of social dominance can potentially make isolation more agonizing. Like primates, mice form hierarchies and relations of dominance when housed together—which are instrumental to the well-being and stability of the social group. The results showed that the dominant mice were more responsive to changes induced in DRN activity, which suggests that they were more susceptible to feelings of loneliness. Being the dominant one in the group, vs the subordinate one, leads to certain differences in how isolation is perceived, as one researcher in the group explained: “if you’re the dominant mouse, maybe you love your social environment. And if you’re the subordinate mouse … maybe you feel socially excluded already.”

There are, neuroanatomically and neurochemically speaking, differences in what social distancing will mean for different people. In a previous article on the neurochemistry of political power, I explain the salience of power to human relations, and the extreme neuro-behavioral responses in circumstances of absolute and unchecked power. The primary neurochemical (known to date) involved in the reward circuitry of power is dopamine, the same neurochemical responsible for the feeling of pleasure. Activating this reward circuitry in the brain leads to an addictive high, much like any drug, and encourages the repetition of those acts that ensure the dopamine flow. We can certainly imagine—in line with the aforementioned study—that social distancing, which prevents some individuals (even temporarily) from exerting whatever power they had, will be especially disagreeable to them.

Prolonged social isolation produces even deeper psychological and behavioral effects. These include increased aggression, anxiety and a sense of persistent threat. For the more primitive parts of the brain, isolation triggers a host of neuro-psychological and neuro-endocrinological responses that are connected to brain regions responsible for threat surveillance and self-preservation. Sociality comes with costs (competition, risks of pathogen transmission, and exploitation) but it is ultimately critical to survival. A sense of isolation and loneliness increases the attention to negative social stimuli (e.g. threats, exclusion) and promotes behavior centered on short-term self-preservation. The range of neural and behavioral reactions to this sense of isolation includes sleep fragmentation, altered gene expression and immunity, decreased impulse control, cognitive decline and risks of dementia. In other words, in a state of perceived loneliness, the individual needs to become better prepared to detect threats and defend him- or herself.

A neurophilosphical perspective on social distancing reminds us why we cannot survive and thrive in loneliness—and why the older structures of the brain identify the prospect of prolonged isolation as truly dreadful.  Drawing on insights from neuroscience, I have previously described human nature as emotional, amoral and egoistic We are far more emotional than rational, and evidence suggests that what we think of as rationality is hardly as pervasive as we would like to believe. In fact, emotional processing in the brain plays a critical role in cognitive functions, memory formation and decision-making—the idea of dual systems of emotion and reason is not supported by neuroscience. We are also amoral in the sense that we are not born with a predefined notion of good or bad. Our moral compass will develop and fluctuate depending on circumstances in our environment. We are hardwired, however, in a deep sense to pursue survival, which is a basic form of egoism. These egoistic features (which can be heightened in a period of social isolation) can prompt us to “fear-induced pre-emptive aggression,” which is a defense mechanism that occurs when individuals anticipate danger and act to protect themselves, including through violence.


Going Forward

In addition to the obvious dread of boredom and monotony, social distancing, isolation and imposed quarantine activate deeper ancestral fears and cause us to feel threats that persist even in this technologically connected global society.

As hundreds of millions of people around the world have been asked to practice social distancing, we are faced with a difficult challenge going forward. For this, in addition to community support, the role of governments, how they communicate and reassure the population, will be critical in the coming months.


This article was originally published in Areo Magazine.

Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan is a Philosopher, Neuroscientist and Geostrategist. He is Head of GCSP's Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme and Honorary Fellow of St. Antony's College at Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Prof Al-Rodhan began his career in neuroscience and neurosurgery before shifting to the field of Global Security and International Relations (IR) in the early 2000s. He holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. and was trained at the Mayo Clinic, Yale University and Harvard University.