The biochemistry of being alone, and how we can improve the status quo

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Image credit: KSL TV

As blustering politicians around the world have plunged us into a global catastrophe in order to respond to the demands of hysterical citizens eager to be “saved” from covid-19, we’ve all ended up locked away and isolated from each other. When we venture out onto the streets we imagine (thanks to the irresponsible sensationalism of the mass media that created this problem in the first place) that our lives are endangered by everyone who has the temerity to pass nearby. We’re encouraged to practice “social distancing” and hide away behind face masks than in reality hugely increase our probability of bacterial infection of the lungs and throat while doing practically nothing to actually prevent viral infection.*

In short, we’ve all been terrified out of our slender wits and many of us are now completely alone.

As is always the case with panic-induced measures, the harms are greater than the benefits they’re supposed to convey. But as we can’t make ourselves less simple-minded and as we can’t combat the ever-present mass media’s pervasive fear-mongering, there’s nothing we can do about folly on a global scale.

We in the affluent and pampered West can, however, take small personal steps to mitigate a few of the many harms our foolish policies have inflicted on those least able to deal with them.

We’re a social primate species. For all of our evolutionary history we’ve depended absolutely on group membership. Lacking powerful muscles, bone-crushing jaws, and sharp claws, the survival time of a solitary human on the African savannah or the primordial forests of Eurasia would have been a couple of days at best. Without the group, we’re nothing. So it’s not surprising that enforced isolation has profoundly damaging effects. Were this not well-known to be the case, prisons wouldn’t use solitary confinement as a punishment of last resort.

So here we are with our own governments inflicting on everyone the punishment of last resort under the rubric of “flattening the curve.”

Here’s the science of loneliness: the human immune system relies in part on one type of myeloid cell that triggers interferon responses. Interferon responses are key to impeding viral replication, which means we rely on them to fight off viral infections. When we are isolated, the level of these cells plummets, which means (yes, you guessed it) we become far more vulnerable to infection. Worse still, there’s a second type of myeloid cell that promotes the activities of genes that cause inflammation, and isolation results in a huge increase in these cells. Inflammation leads to a wide range of diseases, which all serve to further depress our immune system.

In other words, isolating everyone via lockdown makes us all more vulnerable to covid-19.

Scientists have been studying these biochemical effects for years, so this isn’t exactly news to anyone who’s been keeping up with the research. If we weren’t all so busy panicking, this kind of important information would be taken into account when dull-witted politicians look for “solutions” that can save them from losing votes at the next election. Unfortunately, panic always pushes out thinking, so we ended up where we are and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Except we can, because some scientists have not only been investigating the effects of isolation but have also been looking for ways to mitigate the deleterious changes.

Dr Steven Cole at UCLA and Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky at UC Riverside have been testing ways to use behavior to offset the harms caused by isolation. Preliminary results presented this February in New Orleans at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology indicate that certain intentional behaviors can drive positive biochemical changes.

What they found, through a series of experiments carried out over the last couple of years, is that when we perform acts aimed at helping others we experience good feelings. These good feelings then induce changes in our biochemistry, the net results of which are an increased level of the helpful myeloid cells and a decrease of the unhelpful myeloid cells that promote inflammation.

In other words, when we do good for others our bodies respond by increasing our own metabolic health. So it’s a win-win for everyone.

What this means is that, social distancing notwithstanding, we should all be making more effort to reach out to those around us who may need help. This may be as simple as offering to go shopping for an elderly neighbor or having a daily phone call with someone we know who’s stuck on their own far from family and friends. It may be taking a deep breath and being more tolerant of a cantankerous relative with whom we’re presently incarcerated, or being more loving to a stressed-out domestic partner. It certainly means smiling at those we encounter on those rare moments when we’re permitted to go outside, and greeting them with a cheerful voice. It means looking for ways to help others, no matter how small or insignificant any individual act may be.

It means, instead of whining about things, we should be looking for opportunities to reach out and assist others who are likely having a much more difficult time than we are. We can’t do anything to prevent the mass starvation we’ve caused across Africa and Asia, but we can at least help those who are vulnerable in our own societies.

It turns out that the power of small things goes much deeper than many of us suspected.

*The much-reported study about face masks capturing viral particles in droplets that we’ve read about in the news doesn’t count. Viral particles will still enter via the eyes unless we’re also wearing protective goggles. Furthermore the machine used in the study was totally unrepresentative of what happens in real life. In real life, face masks rapidly become moist from our breath. This means that after about 20 minutes they become the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, which we then inhale into our throats and lungs with every breath. Medical personnel change their face masks every 20 minutes and never re-use them for this very reason. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are basically using face masks to create the perfect conditions to self-infect with pneumonia and various other respiratory ailments. Which is the precise opposite of what we ought to be doing at a time like this. But virtue signaling and “doing something” always feels better than reasoning, which is why face masks are so wonderfully popular right now.

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