Dr Louise Hawkley is a principal research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago and has studied loneliness for more than two decades. When the pandemic hit, Hawkley was on a team that had been surveying a group of older adults as part of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project.

“There was all this hype around video calls,” says Hawkley. “That’s your answer, you better learn how to do video calls because then you’re going to get your best quality interactio­n with other people.”

Hawkley convened a new team to survey around 2500 people from the cohort, all aged 55 and up. They asked respondent­s to rate their levels of happiness, depression and loneliness, which could be compared with ratings from the same group taken in 2015, pre-pandemic. People also reported their level of contact with family and friends, how much was in-person, how much was via video and phone calls, email and messaging, and how it all tracked over the pandemic. Hawkley’s findings, published in the

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2021, showed that around 40% of people had reduced inperson contact.

The effects, too, are unsurprisi­ng. “The more you stayed at home and didn’t have contact, the more lonely you became, the more depressed symptoms you had, the less happy you were,” says Hawkley.

Most worrying, though, was the impact of remote contact. “Could they improve that by having more virtual interactio­ns? The take-home seems to be ‘no’,” she says. Hawkley’s team found that between 16% and

26% of respondent­s increased their levels of remote contact during the pandemic.

“It seemed to make no difference,” says Hawkley. “It did not alleviate loneliness to any significan­t degree. It did not alleviate depressive symptoms or improve happiness.”

There is little data why this is the case, so Hawkley can only offer her intuition, albeit drawn from decades of research.

“It’s the whole sensory experience. It’s not just what we see and hear but all the subtle cues we get from, call it body odour, pheromones, whatever. … And there are subtleties in body posture, physiognom­y, that essentiall­y change with emotions. That is very hard to detect accurately on a virtual platform.

“We all have that need for assurance, for security, and we don’t give it to babies by having them watch a screen. It requires this very immediate detection of signals, eye to eye, hand to hand, chest to chest, just to round us out as what we are as people. Because we aren’t islands. We are not sufficient for ourselves.”

activity in brain slices from euthanised mice, whose neurons can remain active for 12–14 hours. To get a better handle on the DRN meant studying live mice using different techniques. So, in 2013, Matthews crossed the Atlantic to take up a post-doc role in the lab of Professor Kay Tye, then at MIT.

They began experiment­s in animals bred so that fluorescen­t indicators could track the influx of calcium into their neurons, which happens when the neurons are firing. It’s called calcium imaging – brighter neurons mean more activity. For 24 hours the mice were either held in isolation or caged with a bunch of other mice. When the time was up they had each mouse say hi to an unfamiliar young mouse.

The mice that had been grouphouse­d had a bit more activity in the DRN neurons. But in the mice that had done solo time, it was something else again.

“These neurons go crazy,” said Tye, shortly after the experiment’s publicatio­n in 2016.

DRN neurons looked to be tracking the social state of the mouse, firing up in isolated animals when they finally reconnecte­d with others. But could those brain cells be doing even more? Were they actually driving behaviour? To find out Matthews and Tye turned to optogeneti­cs, a technique that introduces light-sensitive proteins into neurons, which can then be activated by a given wavelength of light. The team engineered things so the DRN could, effectivel­y, be turned on at the flick of a switch. They put the mouse in a cage with a mesh wall at one end, behind which another mouse was going about its business. And flicked the DRN switch. The effect was immediate, and dramatic.

“We found that they increased the amount of time that they wanted to spend with another mouse,” says Matthews. “They increased their social preference, so they spent more time on that social side of the chamber.” It was a stunning finding. The DRN was, almost single-handedly, deciding whether mice would be shrinking violets, or party animals. Matthews had another tool at her disposal. Optogeneti­cs can also silence neurons. When mice go into isolation for short periods they get convivial on release, as if to make up for the social deficit. The team put mice into lockdown for 24 hours, and then used optogeneti­cs to turn off the DRN neurons. “When we silenced these neurons after animals had gone through 24 hours of isolation, we found that it suppressed that rebound social contact,” says Matthews.

The DRN, they had discovered, was crucial to the process of reconnecti­ng after brief isolation. Matthews, Tye and other researcher­s at the Salk

“The primary safety signal for most humans is being a member of some kind of supportive community, a family, a tribe.” The body, then, sees loneliness as a cue that injury, and bacterial infection, are just one predator away.

Institute in California, where Tye is now based, have set out what they think happens over longer periods of isolation when many people become socially withdrawn.

In two key papers, published in 2019 and 2021, they describe the DRN as part of a system that works like a thermostat.

Reduce your contacts and the system will prompt you to mingle and get your social

“temperatur­e” back to the set point. Matthews and Tye call this

“social homeostasi­s”.

But deprive someone of social contact for months on end and they can get antisocial, content with the new normal of fewer entangleme­nts. Matthews and Tye think this is a

“set point adaptation”, a reset of the thermostat that winds down our social needs. You might feel fine in the trackie-daks and slippers of lockdown, but emerge into your former social milieu and things get uncomforta­ble. It now feels overcrowde­d and people can react with avoidance, aggression or social anxiety. So, what should people do to keep things steady in lockdown, and to re-adapt when they come out?

Hearts and minds

In December 2016 Jack Morris was told, after 30 years of continuous solitary confinemen­t, that he would be transferre­d to general population in a prison downstate.

“I spent Christmas staring out of a window. Out of a window. And I saw snowflakes falling from the sky and that’s after living in a cell for decades and not seeing no night sky, or no sun, or no clouds,” he says. “For weeks I had headaches. I was seeing colours. I’d see the colour of dirt. I’d see the colour of grass. Because in there it’s strictly concrete, you don’t see colour. You walk on concrete, you sleep on concrete, you eat on concrete. You stare at concrete.”

Re-connecting with people came with a distinct set of challenges. “I didn’t know how to socialise. How can I go up to somebody and talk to them? What am I going to do, look at ’em and talk to ’em? Shake a hand? You don’t do that. That’s foreign to you. It’s no longer something you know about. It’s something you have to learn all over again.”

The process wasn’t helped by the profound anxiety Morris felt being around people again. “Your heart, you could literally hear it pounding in your chest. Somebody would just run by. You’re turning around, you’re jumpy, you’re jittery. You can’t sit down. You can’t get any relaxation.”

Released from prison in 2017, Morris has slowly inched his way back into society. Millions of people around the world are recovering from their own, less extreme struggles with isolation.

“You do need to be conscious that there are long term changes that could have impacted how long it will take people to change their behaviour and to feel comfortabl­e and to feel less anxious,” says Matthews.

But deep in all that neuroscien­ce there is also a message of hope. “If we have learnt anything about the brain it is that it’s really good at adapting. I think people will adapt back, and I think the brain will adapt too.”

PAUL BIEGLER is a bio-ethicist based in Melbourne. His last story for the magazine, on mindsharin­g, was in Issue 91.

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