Dealing with loneliness during the pandemic

Sheltering at home is anti-instinctual behavior. Yet doing so saves lives.

man looking out from Staten Island Ferry

Tremaine Fredericks rides on an empty Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan on March 24, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • Mental health disorders are on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Lack of social contact is anti-instinctual behavior for humans, yet it is needed during this particular crisis.
  • How we cope with social distancing and sheltering at home will in large part dictate how long this crisis lasts.

There have been many comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and previous historical incidents. Obviously, the last great flu pandemic of 1918-19 has been receiving a lot of attention. There's also quantitative comparisons. Pundits compare this pandemic death toll to wars and terrorist attacks. This week, America surpassed the death toll in Vietnam. In previous weeks, rates were compares to the War in Afghanistan and 9/11.

Comparing a virus to a war isn't fair, though the headlines can be forgiven. We're trying to wrap our heads around the enormity of tragedy. One feature of consciousness is qualia, instances of subjective experience. In order to understand something—say, a glass of wine—we relate to it by stating "this is like this." This Bordeaux smells like peppercorn and chocolate. Comparison gives us a point of reference in an effort to understand concepts. We do it with everything.

While death tolls are one thing, conditions on the ground are entirely different. Consider 9/11. During the months following that day, New Yorkers were more likely to say hello to random passerby on the street. There was an uptick in kindness and charity. People were present for one another on an unprecedented scale. There was a real feeling of "we're in this together."

Feeling like you're a part of something requires presence, which is exactly what's lacking as we shelter at home. Even on 9/11, as I walked from downtown Manhattan to my girlfriend's apartment in the Upper East Side—I lived in Jersey City and had no way of returning home—I would stop to talk to people on the street. We were able to look one another in the eyes. Life was briefly upended, sure, but we could still physically be there for one another. We could even touch each other.

Why loneliness is a danger to individuals and societies | Andrew Horn

Lack of contact is driving loneliness during this pandemic. Health care workers are experiencing an increase in mental health conditions. Being on the front lines is emotionally taxing. But those forced to shelter at home, especially when living alone, are also facing increased anxiety and depression.

An avoidance of social contact is an evolutionary mismatch, argue three researchers in a recent essay published in the journal, Current Biology. Evolutionary biology dictates that we come together during times of crisis. We're social animals. The inability to make contact is frustrating and leads to trauma as self-isolation persists.

The authors (Guillaume Dezecache, Chris Frith, and Ophelia Deroy) write that the media is driving narratives counter to natural behavior. During tragedies, we tend to want to help others more than take care of ourselves. Empathy is our biological inheritance. The media, they write, has adopted a Hobbesian view of the world: every man for himself.

The focus on irrational hoarding of supplies is one example. While running from a fire is a natural reaction to danger, they note that our intuitive responses are cooperation, not selfishness. News outlets perpetuate problems by homing in on aberrant behavior. In fact, they drive the problem. We believe supplies are running short, creating this Hobbesian mentality: I must hoard as well.

This mindset seems worse in cities. As they write,

"In all likelihood, the mismatch between our misperception of the severity of the threat and its consequences is likely to become even more destructive in dense urban areas in which social isolation is a costly good."

man on Staten Island Ferry

A man rests on an empty Staten Island Ferry on March 24, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Then there's the flip side: refusing to social distance or shelter at home. Because the threat is invisible we tend to downplay the risks. This is in stark contrast to 9/11, in which more fearful minds associated any Muslim with terrorism. Fortunately, this trend was relatively rare in New York City, though anti-Islam sentiments exploded across the nation, usually in regions with less diverse cultures.

Sine we cannot see this virus, and therefore don't necessarily understand how it's transmitted or concern ourselves much if we're not in a high-risk group, we don't take precautions. The short-term benefit of contact might, however, fuel the long-term detriment of increased hospitalization and death.

Nonchalance isn't the only reason for such behavior. It might be something much more ingrained in us.

"It is because our infection-avoidance mechanisms are overwhelmed by a much stronger drive to affiliate and seek close contact."

As the authors conclude, the more we can stave off loneliness for the greater good of society—at-risk populations, such as the elderly and immunodeficient; health care workers; supply chains providing hospitals with necessary resources; workers contracted to produce those supplies—dictates how we emerge on the other side of this pandemic.

Sadly, there is no easy response. Collectively we're facing a range of terrible outcomes. The best we can do is strive for the least tragic result. We passed 60,000 deaths in America today. How high that number climbs is in large part in our hands, yet keeping it low requires anti-instinctual behavior. That conundrum is shaping what our society will look like in the future.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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