With COVID-19 vaccines working and restrictions lifting across the country, it's finally time for those now vaccinated who've been hunkered down at home to ditch the sweatpants and reemerge from their Netflix caves. But your brain may not be so eager to dive back into your former social life.
Social distancing measures proved essential for slowing COVID-19's spread worldwide – preventing upward of an estimated 500 million cases. But, while necessary, 15 months away from each other has taken a toll on people's mental health.
So how can people be so lonely yet so nervous about refilling their social calendars?
In a national survey last fall, 36% of adults in the U.S. – including 61% of young adults – reported feeling "serious loneliness' during the pandemic. Statistics like these suggest people would be itching to hit the social scene.
But if the idea of making small talk at a crowded happy hour sounds terrifying to you, you're not alone. Nearly half of Americans reported feeling uneasy about returning to in-person interaction regardless of vaccination status.
So how can people be so lonely yet so nervous about refilling their social calendars?
Well, the brain is remarkably adaptable. And while we can't know exactly what our brains have gone through over the last year, neuroscientists like me have some insight into how social isolation and resocialization affect the brain.
Humans have an evolutionarily hardwired need to socialize – though it may not feel like it when deciding between a dinner invite and rewatching "Schitt's Creek."
From insects to primates, maintaining social networks is critical for survival in the animal kingdom. Social groups provide mating prospects, cooperative hunting and protection from predators.
But social homeostasis – the right balance of social connections – must be met. Small social networks can't deliver those benefits, while large ones increase competition for resources and mates. Because of this, human brains developed specialized circuitry to gauge our relationships and make the correct adjustments – much like a social thermostat.
Many are experiencing (social) anxiety — Photo: Joice Kelly/Unsplash
Social homeostasis involves many brain regions, and at the center is the mesocorticolimbic circuit – or "reward system." That same circuit motivates you to eat chocolate when you crave something sweet or swipe on Tinder when you crave … well, you get it.
And like those motivations, a recent study found that reducing social interaction causes social cravings – producing brain activity patterns similar to food deprivation.
So if people hunger for social connection like they hunger for food, what happens to the brain when you starve socially?
Scientists can't shove people into isolation and look inside their brains. Instead, researchers rely on lab animals to learn more about social brain wiring. Luckily, because social bonds are essential in the animal kingdom, these same brain circuits are found across species.
One prominent effect of social isolation is – you guessed it – increased anxiety and stress.
Many studies find that removing animals from their cage buddies increases anxiety-like behaviors and cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Human studies also support this, as people with small social circles have higher cortisol levels and other anxiety-related symptoms similar to socially deprived lab animals.
Evolutionarily this effect makes sense – animals that lose group protection must become hypervigilant to fend for themselves. And it doesn't just occur in the wild. One study found that self-described "lonely" people are more vigilant of social threats like rejection or exclusion.
During the COVID-19 lockdown a plane flew above Hamburg to ask people to "Stay at home" — Photo: Niklas Ohlrogge/Unsplash
Another important region for social homeostasis is the hippocampus – the brain's learning and memory center. Successful social circles require you to learn social behaviors – such as selflessness and cooperation – and recognize friends from foes. But your brain stores tremendous amounts of information and must remove unimportant connections. So, like most of your high school Spanish – if you don't use it, you lose it.
Adults with small social circles are more likely to develop memory loss.
And isolated humans may be just as forgetful. Antarctic expeditioners had shrunken hippocampi after just 14 months of social isolation. Similarly, adults with small social circles are more likely to develop memory loss and cognitive decline later in life.
So, human beings might not be roaming the wild anymore, but social homeostasis is still critical to survival. Luckily, as adaptable as the brain is to isolation, the same may be true with resocialization.
Though only a few studies have explored the reversibility of the anxiety and stress associated with isolation, they suggest that resocialization repairs these effects.
One study, for example, found that formerly isolated marmosets first had higher stress and cortisol levels when resocialized but then quickly recovered. Adorably, the once-isolated animals even spent more time grooming their new buddies.
Social memory and cognitive function also seem to be highly adaptable.
And there may be hope for people emerging from socially distanced lockdown as well. A recent Scottish study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that residents had some cognitive decline during the harshest lockdown weeks but quickly recovered once restrictions eased.
Unfortunately, studies like these are still sparse. And while animal research is informative, it likely represents extreme scenarios since people weren't in total isolation over the last year. Unlike mice stuck in cages, many in the U.S. had virtual game nights and Zoom birthday parties (lucky us).
So power through the nervous elevator chats and pesky brain fog, because "un-social distancing" should reset your social homeostasis very soon.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.