What Does Isolation Do To Our Brains?
Very Interesting|September/October 2020
The countrywide lockdown is vital for slowing the spread of COVID-19. But why is it so tough for us to stay at home and what are the consequences?
Dean Burnett

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. 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 socialization in a variety of different ways, which means this social isolation instruction is a pretty big ask, with a number of consequences.

Our brains have evolved for socialisation

Why do humans have such big, smart, resource-hungry brains at all? There are a lot of theories around this, but one of the more prominent ideas 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 was disrupted.

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