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Jun. 5, 2020 | Friday
Editorials and Opinions
COVID-19: Dr. Brown: Humans are sociable and isolation takes a toll on us
Dr. William Brown.

Dr. William Brown

Special to The Lake Report

I’ve been described by my daughter as a natural hermit, to which I confess – but only at times. After all, lots of activities that I enjoy, such as reading, writing, sketching or painting or just trying to get my head around some issue, work best solo with few distractions.

In the days when I regularly ran I usually set out well before sunrise, whatever the weather, to put in my hour or so. Sometimes flying was like that – practising takeoffs and landings, some cross-country trips and instrument approaches were usually solo affairs for me.

But from an evolutionary perspective, humans, like most primates, are a highly social species. Those who have studied chimpanzees in the wild, such as Jane Goodall or in captivity, in the case of Frans De Waal, are struck by just how much time chimps spend grooming one another, picking through the fur of friends and relatives for nits and other irksome fellow travellers.

The human equivalent of grooming in chimps is gossip, according to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford. He also suggests that it was the challenge posed by increasingly large social groups over the course of the several million-year history of our evolution as a species that was the primary adaptive force behind the evolution of the human brain.

Afterall, it takes a lot of intelligence to keep track of who’s in, who’s out, who’s a friend, who’s not, and figuring out relationships between others in the group.

So, whatever our needs for solo time, we are a social species and the social isolation imposed by quarantining, restrictions on social gatherings and social distancing, wears thin the longer the isolation.

The first weeks weren’t so bad – a chance to stream endless movies and programs (40 or more hours per week on average, according to Netflix, through February and March but tapering these days as the novelty wears off).

The same happened with other social media, with heavy use of Facebook, WhatsApp and Zoom, the new boy on the electronic street. Zoom, especially, has been widely adopted as a meeting tool for churches, businesses, schools and social agencies, among others, as a second-best alternative to meeting in close proximity to others. Mind you, electronic meetings definitely have their places.

Because the school systems are in Alaska are poor, my grandson has been home-schooled for several years by my daughter using among other tools, hand-picked Ted Talks and other rich online programming.

And when it came to meet her annual recertification requirements for orthodontics this year, instead of the usual annual trip to some expensive destination location, for the first time because of COVID-19 the mandatory recertification programs were offered online.

The response of so many educational facilities from public schools to universities to the pandemic offers a glimpse into the post COVID-19 period world for education and meetings. Many educational facilities quickly adapted by creating online courses for their students, many of whom had been sent home.

We won’t know how well those courses worked for many months to come but it’s probably fair to say that many of those online courses will continue in the post COVID-19 world supported by high-quality small group teaching sessions to provide the necessary close contact discussions that are the hallmark of education at its best.

That takes us full circle back to social isolation and Dunbar. We can certainly learn a lot using courses on the net, and even have church services using Zoom, but it’s no replacement for close contact get togethers.

Why? Because much of what goes on in groups is related to our capacities to read the emotions and even intentions of others based on their facial expressions, manner, tone of voice and gestures – the same social intelligence tools our species acquired over hundreds of thousands of years and, so far at least, not replaced by social media. For business maybe, but without a lot more improvements, not ready for primetime social activities.

As many of you know, my wife is in a local long-term care facility because of dementia. Thank goodness that in this lockdown period, Ruth, a social worker, connects my wife with me, our son, daughter and a good friend, Lynn, for a few priceless minutes each week, for which we are very grateful.

But we can’t hug her and that’s a big difference, isn’t it? It’s just not the same. That’s some of what’s missing in these times. Solitary confinement was never a good idea.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the Infohealth series held each month at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  


 

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