Neuroscience of loneliness and Rogue of the X-Men

An event is labelled as “exceptional” when it makes the impossible possible. Think The Rumble in The Jungle where the undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman faced Muhammad Ali. Think Miracle on the Hudson when all the executive decision making that led to a positive outcome took place within a time window of just 208 seconds. Think Apollo 13 where a crew in space had to face and solve a potentially disastrous problem none of them had trained for.

Covid-19 is just such an exceptional event. It is giving us the opportunity to acquire data we wouldn’t have been able to acquire before, like the number of lives saved if cities shut down their CO2-emitting activities or the number of wildlife sightings in cities if humans change their own behavior and stay confined, mostly, indoors.

Similarly, covid-19 is allowing us to experience what I call the Rogue moment, after the X-Men mutant character who is unable to touch those around her in case she accidentally kills them. She can absorb (and retain) the power and memories of the last person whose skin she touches, but runs the risk of absorbing their life force and killing them if she maintains contact for too long.

To many who watched the series Rogue’s superpower (and the affliction that comes with every gain) didn’t seem that much of a deal. That’s because everyone who watched the show, at the time, was free to touch pretty much anyone, at any time. We were free to consensually shake hands, clasp shoulders, kiss, hold and hug each other without fearing any repercussion arising from the action.

Covid-19 has suddenly changed all that. Until we get back to some semblance of the past, it’s important to now understand what it is we have lost exactly and how we can make up for it.

Why Human Touch Is Important To Us

We crave human touch because we evolved our massively complex brain in order to be social. When we no longer can, the isolation disrupts our brain structure and our brain shrinks.

Over at The Atlantic, James Hamblin, who’s a doctor, in preventative medicine and bioethics answered just that question in his podcast when he said:

“When you press on the skin, it sends signals to your spinal cord that go up to your brain, and that changes your brain’s output. … If you’ve been touched on the shoulder by a human hand, it’s different than if you leaned your shoulder against the wall. Knowing that it’s a human creates this cascade of emotional signals that aren’t re-created, even if it was the exact same pressure in the exact same duration. Depending how sustained that is, and if you have a sort of typical reaction to touch, you’re going to be suddenly without those hormones.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that social isolation in humans leads to morbidity and mortality. Further, brain scanning studies have shown that subcortical brain regions, such as the ventral striatum, which plays an important role in motivation, are activated when receiving social rewards.

Social Distancing Requires Adaptation

Covid-19 aims directly at our strengths and turns them into weaknesses: population density (which allows us to pool resources and achieve efficiencies of scale), pro-social behavior (that enables us to sync our efforts and amplify everything we do as a collective) and the basic human touch (that serves to ground us and recalibrate our brains) are all now working against us by making it easier to transmit the virus and potentially kill some of those around us.

Hard as it is, until a vaccine is available, we need to adapt. Adapting requires us not just to act differently but to think differently.

Here are some of the changes we now need to take into account:

  • Find new ways to establish personal trust. In real-world settings, we shall have to pay more attention to details, observe situations more carefully, process data in a more detailed way and begin to determine what it is we consider trustworthy in each situation and why. It is safe to say that the very nature of trust will change because our behavior is changing and we need to take this new physical and digital modality into account.
  • Our values will need to will need to take center stage. When we could operate in at least some kind of differentiated contexts having a values-driven approach to conduct and marketing was, mostly, a lip-service thing. Covid-19 has caused a global context collapse that’s wrong-footed businesses and celebrities alike.
  • We need more science in our thinking. Without a knowledgeable, structured approach to thinking about the future we shall be trapped in loop that repeats the mistakes of the past. To break out of it we need knowledge that leads to understanding and that gives us real power.
  • We need more humanity in our approach. Tribal behavior has had its day. Moving past it requires recognizing the benefits and pitfalls it gives us and accepting the former while rejecting the latter.

All of this is intentional behavior. The future is uncertain. Successfully dealing with it is not something that can be done automatically. We need to apply real knowledge, awareness, intent and focus to navigate it.