COMMENTARY

Letter From a Fellow COVID Recluse Concerned About Your Health

Michael Merzenich, PhD

Disclosures

June 13, 2022

Dear socially detached person,

You have survived COVID.

Michael Merzenich

You have accomplished that by being cautious and by hiding out.

You followed the science; you stayed home; you didn't see your family much at birthdays and holidays; you stayed in touch with your friends by phone, text, and email; and you went to work by Zoom, if you could, or with a mask, if you had to be there in person.

Eating a meal in a restaurant may still be a distant memory, as is being in a movie theater — or any theater. You helped stop the spread; you bent the curve; and your personal sacrifice helped you get through the pandemic and helped our healthcare system focus on helping the people who needed help the most.

Good work!

But now, as America has logged its millionth death from COVID and the transmission rates all around us seem to not have been reduced to where we'd like, we hear a resounding chorus to "get over it," to leave our bunkers, and to re-engage — as though COVID is over.

It may surprise you that despite my scientific background, cautious nature, and advanced years, I mostly agree with that sentiment.

It is time to stop being so physically detached from family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors, and to "re-attach." For me, that's because social attachment to fellow human beings is an elementary requisite to sustaining your brain health and overall health.

Of course, you need to be sensible and recognize that there's still a lot of COVID literally "in the air." Meet outdoors or in places with good filtration and ventilation. Wear a mask when you find yourself in a crowd. Show your concern for others by rapid-testing before gatherings.

It's time to take at least some small steps to get back out there, because the isolation of COVID also has its health toll. We humans are designed for attachment. From the moment we're born to the moment we go on to our great reward, our brains are built to care deeply about all the other people in our lives.

Large parts of our brains are devoted to processing information about other people. Our visual cortex — specialized to process all the information taken in by our gaze, and to decompose the visual scene into edges, colors, and movement — eventually reassembles this information into faces so we can recognize our friends and family, and make new friends from strangers. Our auditory cortex tackles this work for what we hear, taking apart sound into its elemental properties of frequency and bandwidth, and then reassembling it into the complexities of speech reception and even prosody (the emotional content of speech).

After being processed in these generally sensory regions of the brain, this information gets passed on to the higher-order association cortex and frontal cortex, where this rich information about the social world around us gets integrated with our goals, plans, expectations, and memories.

How is it that our brains have these fantastically well-optimized systems for social cognition? Well, it turns out that these systems — like every other complex system in our brains — build themselves over time, through learning and experience, based on the principles of brain plasticity (that is, the principles by which the brain changes chemically, structurally, and functionally throughout our lives, in response to our experiences). By interacting with people — since we first emerged into the world and saw those interesting faces making goo-goo and ga-ga sounds around us — each of our brains wired itself to process social information and even to orient to, and thrive on, social interaction.

This means that interacting with people is good for our brain health and that social isolation is bad for our brain health. In fact, the negative consequences of social isolation are well known to psychologists and neuroscientists: Poor cognitive function, increased depression, and even a higher risk for dementia are all consequences of social isolation.

Our brains are built, by the process of brain plasticity, to care about and to take care of one another. In fact, our own sense of ourselves — that feeling we have when we look inside and think about who we are — is neurologically constructed by a massive schedule of associations between all of our feelings and actions and emotions. A key part of those associations comes from reliable sources of positive reward. Your mother. Your father. Your sibling. Your best friend. Your beloved dog or cat.

By these same processes, all of those positive things in your life grew into you — a inseparable part of you. You would defend them to the death, because in doing that, you would be defending your brain's construction of yourself.

We are reminded of this importance (if we're lucky) by a mother on Mother's Day or by a father on Father's Day. All of us have that special "someone," that small or large group of other human individuals that we do love and cherish and who have been made a part of our very soul — our "self" — by the incredible processes in our brains that have made us.

Research shows that if you're good at opening your heart to other people and incorporating them into your own sense of self, you strengthen your own brain health. You also live longer. That's because when you are generous in attachment and empathy and in connecting with other people, your brain is richly rewarded for it. Intensively growing that reward exercises your brain in crucially important ways.

Your brain is designed for attachment. Survival in the basic human clan or family is all about connection. The machinery in your brain that controls attachment is the very same machinery that controls your brain plasticity — the state of which determines your individual ability to sustain yourself in a positive, lively manner to the end of a very long, brain-healthy life.

So, take this unique COVID episode in our lives as a "wake-up call" for the value of your attachment to other human beings in your family, community, and world. The more, the healthier! People of generous spirit live longer, with their wits about them. I suggest that you re-visit and remember who else in the world you might care about. "Every other human being" (and pretty much all of the animals) on the planet qualifies for me!

For you, this is just another crystal-clear example of a quintuple win. Caring, connected people live longer. They live happier. Their friends benefit from their generous and exuberant friendship. Their community benefits. The world benefits. What a bonanza that can be — for a post-pandemic rebound!

Be well,

Mike

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