Resocializing Our Brains

Worries about post-pandemic social life are understandable: Our brains may even have been remolded by isolation. But indulging our collective “Cave Syndrome” is not the solution, writes Rosa Riera

by Rosa Riera | 19 May, 2021
The Screenshot by Rosa Riera: Resocializing Our Brains

When Dr. Tim Heitland returned from the Antarctic after a 14-month research trip in 2018, the first thing he did was hug a tree. But not everything he encountered after his time away was quite so reassuring to him: After such a long stay in the monotonous beauty of the South Pole, he found civilization overwhelming. As he put it to Scientific American, it took him over a year to feel comfortable among people again.

Once Dr. Heitland and his team were back from the cold, they were medically examined to see how their time in the wilderness had affected them. One finding was so striking that the doctors initially thought they had made a mistake: the brain of almost every single member had changed. During their extended isolation, Dr. Heitland and his colleagues had lost volume in the hippocampus—the part of the brain that enables us to process emotions, learn things and master spatial navigation.

By now, the virus has shut us away for about the same amount of time as Dr. Heitland stayed in Antarctica. But it will not be much longer until the restrictions start loosening again and we are offered the possibility of reclaiming our social lives. If isolation makes us less empathetic, dumber, and more likely to get lost, then this has implications for the immediate post-pandemic world. Putting the social world back together again is not going to be easy. 

And it does appear that many of us are feeling anxious about being among people again. Reports about this are in fact so frequent that it has now received its own moniker: “Cave Syndrome.” I feel the same – I find myself being more hesitant about going back to the old ways. On one level, the idea of a restaurant meal with friends, a concert, an exhibition, a party appeals to me as much as it ever did. But on a different level, the prospect of doing any of these things now, or next week, or in a month fills me with a type of unease that I have never felt before. Even if I allow for the fact that I have not yet been vaccinated, I still cannot easily explain my hesitation. It’s as if the pandemic has left me feeling a little shy — not something I could ever have imagined describing myself as. 

Maybe our individual experience with lockdown and social distancing has indeed served as our own private Antarctica, remolding our brain as we went through it, putting social competencies into sleep mode: after all, we had limited need for them.

Yet I do not believe that Cave Syndrome will be with us for long. Even Dr. Heitland recovered from a much more extreme experience. And I do not doubt that the coming years will be dynamic ones, as we all make up for lost time and direct our pent-up energy into exciting endeavors.

But before this happens — during the transition period into 2022 and beyond — things may well be tricky. And not just because people may feel overwhelmed as they emerge from their homes and rediscover the social activities that they took for granted before 2020.

There will, for example, still be fear of the virus, even among the vaccinated. Mask-wearing — or not-wearing — will surely be a source of tension, with the rules, recommendations, and etiquette of the post-vaccine world still to be ironed out. The question of how we are to work going forward could see conflict between those who want to switch off Zoom and have us head back into the office, and those who think we should stick with the distanced working practices of the pandemic.

It will be fine to feel hesitant at first, and to take things a little at a time. But at some point, if it does not happen naturally, we are going to have to make an effort to get things back closer to how they were before. I am not a doctor, but I am pretty sure that bigger is better when it comes to the hippocampus. And while hugging trees is great, hugging friends and family is better.



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