How does the COVID-19 lockdown affect our brains? What is the worst that could happen?
Dazed and confused (from Unsplash)
Over one Skype video group chat, an overseas friend of mine told me a funny story: during the COVID-19 lockdown in May, she was living inside a small studio with limited sunlight.
Although, usually enjoys being alone, she was starting to long for face-to-face human interaction. Her schedule was also completely off, working and resting whenever she wanted. Soon she found herself losing the sense of time, often not realizing a day has gone by.
Then one day, she went out for a walk in the park. And in between waking up from the haze and taking in the fresh air and scenery, she felt as if she was in a trance.
“I was walking, but it felt like I was floating! The bushes and trees alongside the pavement were drifting past me. And I looked at the buildings far away- they felt like backdrops! I asked myself ‘Are those real buildings?’ That’s when I knew the situation was taking a toll on me.”
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has taken the whole world by storm. Within a few months, it has infected over 11 million people, taken more than 554 thousand lives away from friends and loved ones .
Even if you are those neither directly affected by this novel virus, nor the much-appreciated essential workers, you must be impacted by this global enemy in some way. Some of us might have unfortunately lost their jobs, while others might be stuck in another country. Personal recounts worldwide have shone a light on the burdens this pandemic has put on our mental health.
We find ourselves not only worrying about matters like health and career but also stuck in our home, looking outside the windows while idly twiddling our thumbs. The global-wide lockdown and quarantine forced social isolation upon us.
The term social isolation is interchangeable with loneliness, but don’t mix them up!
While loneliness is a state of mind, social isolation is the physical absence of social contact over a long time . That is, everyone enjoys some relaxing me-time at home. But when me-time is over-prolonged and (in the case of COVID-19) forced upon us, that’s when pleasant solitude turns sour into isolation and make us feel lonely.
Evolution shaped us into social creatures.
About 13 million years ago, we started living in large groups to ensure higher survival chance and resource abundance . From then on, our brains had been moulded into treating social interactions as a fundamental need, just like water and sleep.
Neuroscience studies conclude that the human brain experiences social interactions alike that of food and money: dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons are predominate in the rewarding circuit in the basal ganglia, a group of neuron clusters deep inside the cerebral hemispheres.
Basal Ganglia and Amygdala (from WikiMedia)
Dopamine is the “rewarding” hormone that reinforces social interactions as pleasurable . A lack of good feelings pushes us to seek gratifying social interactions - think of it as enjoying a 5 star gourmet dinner. It is delightful, but not vital. Dopamine also plays a role in maintaining a routine.
We feel proud when we follow our daily schedule. With lockdown, we are not going around being productive and meeting people - we don’t feel accomplished . That’s why people are doing yoga and making banana bread - we need our dopamine fix somehow.
However, as social isolation goes on, gloomy loneliness grows in our mind like rising bread dough: a dip in both dopamine and serotonin, a hormone regulating mood and wellbeing, can be observed in individuals during prolonged social isolation, opening doors to depression and anxiety [6, 7].
Human touch is an important part of socialization (from Unsplash)
But social contacts are more than a tasty steak or a prize at the casino.
A heartfelt hug makes us feel not just happy but loved. As babies, our parents rocked us to sleep in their arms; we hug with friends and kiss our lovers… Though not conclusive, this “love” feeling is thought to be a product of oxytocin, a hormone found to be very concentrated during childbirth, making mothers feel for their new-borns .
Oxytocin tends to be in higher level during physical contact. Skin-to-skin affectionate touches are fundamental to social bonding and reassurance. And when would we need reassurance more than during a pandemic?
Besides love, touch of the skin also bring calm. Stimulations are sent from skin to the vagus (a nerve in the brain), triggering vagal activities to slowing down the nervous system, heart rate and blood pressure, thus calming brain waves and lowering the level of a stress hormone named cortisol, relaxing you .
Funny enough, a lower level of cortisol can also increase white blood cells and strengthen the immune system against diseases such as, you guessed it, COVID-19 . This is a cruel irony, as relaxation and strength are exactly what is most needed now . Instead, there has been a global echo of personal recounts of “skin hunger”, with the above benefits reversed .
However, none of these physiological effects explains my friend’s experience in the park. If it wasn’t social isolation alone when what else was responsible?
That’s when I thought about my friend’s circumstance: she wasn’t just having no contacts with people, but also the outside world at large. The few times she walked out of the door was to pick up the delivered groceries and dinners left at the doorsteps.
Does restricting one’s movements to a confined space have any cognitive neural impact?
The answer is “Yes”, and it has got a name too.
With COVID-19, people around the globe are getting cabin fever. Originally, it describes the symptoms experienced by rural residents who are snowed in for lengthy periods in harsh winters. Trapped between four walls, sufferers experience claustrophobia, boredom, depression, anxiety, irritation and so on [5, 9].
Unlike social isolation, sufferers of cabin fever might be living with others, such as families and roommates. No one can get away from each other and feuds sprout. In severe cases, the sufferers may even threaten their own or others’ lives .
Can you stand staying inside a small cabin for a long winter? (from Pixabay)
Still, cabin fever doesn’t fully explain my friend’s little incident. She was feeling dull and a bit short tempered, but that’s it. And she surely did not feel the bloodlust to bash an axe into someone’s head like in The Shining.
Now, what follows probably sounds too intense, but this time-disassociating and floating sensation my friends had, have also been reported by, to a MUCH exceeding extent, prisoners of solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of involuntarily social solitary possible . A prisoner is locked inside a confined room with little to no contact with the outside world for days to even years. It is an extremely cruel form of psychological torture and is sadly still used in some countries such as the US.
I know it is way too dramatic comparing the lockdown to solitary confinement.
Most of us can look out the window, sleep and eat, and do whatever, whenever we like. Some of us live with family and loved ones. And most importantly, we have the internet at our disposal. Still, solitary confinement can be used as examples of what can happen when complete isolation is taken too far.
Solitary confinement showcases the impacts of both chronic social isolation and sensory deprivation.
The amygdala, the brain region which becomes highly active during times of anxiety and fear. Meanwhile, our abilities to learn and remember things decreases due to the shrinking of another part of the brain called the hippocampus.
This is because of the disablement of new neural connections forming when we meet new people and learn new things, as suggested by studies on mice that have been isolated for up to 3 months.
It is as if the brain is erasing the abilities not needed for survival in the tiny cells: prisoners have troubles recognizing faces, directions and so on . Overall, daily neuro-functioning (i.e. memory, attention, logical and speech) weaken [12, 13].
Solitary Confinement has devastating consequences on a person (from Pixabay)
Leaving social isolation aside, sensory deprivation also messes with one’s perception of time. Imagine being stuck in a dim room or the underground… some best-known cases of this “time-shifting” phenomenon are French geologist Michal Siffre and caving fanatic Maurizio Montalbini.
They both voluntarily stayed underground for extended periods. After they resurfaced, Siffre took 5 minutes to count 120 seconds; while Montalbini insisted that he was underground for a little over 200 days- it had been over 300 days. The two men also exhibited disturbed biological clocks and circadian rhythms .
Mind-blowingly, the bizarre and saddening impacts of sensory deprivation don’t end there. In the 1950s’, psychologist Donald Hebb paid college students to stay by themselves for as long as they could in cubicles, minimizing all kinds of sensory inputs.
Unanimously, participants experienced all sorts of hallucinations, from seeing beams of lights, hearing choir singing, to feeling electric shock. These hallucinations continued even after the sensory deprivation ended, some students felt the room moving - ding ding ding, sounds like what my friend experienced (to a much milder degree)!
You see, from the moment we are born, the human brain has been decoding sensations: what is that flying thing? A bird? A plane? Superman? The brain analyses the external world and builds a “reality” out of it.
The human body is a machine that never rests. In the case of sensory deprivation, the nervous system is still tingling, thus providing the brain’s central processor with very limited sensory information. The still-active brain tries to make sense of the full picture. Hallucinations occur when the brain draws a full picture based on a drop of paint that might not even be there .
So, what now? If you are still in lockdown or quarantine, are you destined to reach insanity?
Don’t worry, there are many ways to maintain a healthy brain. Play an instrument, do a puzzle, learn a new dance move… do anything that keeps your brain active. Specifically, try to exercise your memory and attention, as these two functions are first and foremost affected by neuro-deterioration.
Keeping a daily schedule is vital to not only keeping a sense of time and reality, but also leads to productivity (dopamine fix!) .
And yet, as nature intended, we will need social interactions sooner or later. Thankfully, with modern-day technology, we don’t have to yell at a volleyball as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away.
With Twitter, Instagram, Facebook… etc, we are up to date with what everyone thinks about everything. And if one longs for more intimacy, video chat is available in most communication apps, such as Skype and WhatsApp. Zoom, in particular, has been very popular during this pandemic. People across the globe have been joining Zoom lectures, yoga classes, parties… the possibilities are endless.
But is a Zoom party as good as a real one? Sadly, it isn’t.
Most obviously, the much-needed skin-to-skin contacts are lacking. As mentioned, a hug or a shoulder pat is central to social bonding and reassurances. Face-to-face interactions are also easier for our brain to decode.
Distortions and delays of images and audio make it harder for the human brain to process vocal hints and facial expressions. Speaking of which, as facial expressions are flatter and blurrier on screen, it is more difficult to read emotions. Adding to the challenge is the lack of body language, as everyone is shown only from head to chest… these are all important social cues for answering questions such as how is everyone’s mood? Am I liked? How will they react if I crack a joke now?
The brain must concentrate harder to decipher these flimsy social cues and make sense of the non-existing ones. As the video chat drags on, we lose concentration and feel drained [8, 16]. Expressed by many students, teachers, home-workers and so on, this burnout is dubbed “Zoom fatigue”.
There are many more reasons feeding Zoom fatigue: We are on display in a small box.
Instead of mingling in a group or leaning side-by-side with someone, the tiny screen makes us feel as if we are on stage. So instead of having fun, many of us are nervous about how we look on screen, how we act and so on.
The conversation can also feel less sincere, as people gaze at the screen (checking how they look, maybe?), or at some other websites… anywhere but through the camera and into our eyes.
Although turning off your camera and mic during group chat can reduce confusion, it also makes the experiences less engaging… not just Zoom, but video chat technology at large, though enriches our lives, is made not with our brain’s best interests in mind. It is even proved that you are better off just having a phone call - less is going on, making it more relaxing, which is the reason we want to chat up with friends in the first place [8, 16, 17].
After ending the Skype group chat with my friends, I couldn’t agree more that video chat technology is still way inferior when compared to the real deal. While it was nice seeing my friends’ faces, the satisfaction is dispatched way too soon.
I long for the day we can reunite without the looming threat of COVID-19. I am sure you feel the same way too - I don’t need to read your face to know that.
Written by Sophia Man
Edited and reviewed by Markus Dettenhofer and Somsuvro Basu
Publication date: 21.08.2020