By Vishwanath Prathikanti, Political Science ‘23
Author’s note: As an undergraduate researcher at UC Davis, I have planned and executed a study in chemistry education and now am in the process of presenting findings. This experience sparked my interest in how students learn and what detriments there are to obtaining education. As a student, I was interested in learning what social isolation does to our brains and how it affects our education.
In the current Covid-19 pandemic, the norm in terms of education has been virtual classes and recorded lectures. In the interest of safety, schools have closed lecture halls, minimized the number of students staying in a single dorm, and generally encouraged students to avoid contact with others. While these steps are all necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19, they also contribute to student loneliness, which severely hampers learning.
Why do we feel lonely right now?
When discussing social isolation today, we might find ourselves asking if we truly are “isolated.” Schools all across the country use Zoom to facilitate discussions and classes that would normally be in-person. Outside of the learning environment, many try to stay connected with friends and family via virtual meeting spaces to watch TV or play games together. However, being socially isolated isn’t necessarily about the number of interactions, but rather the quality of interactions. Hawkley et al. state that “Perceptions are critical … People can live rather solitary lives and not feel lonely, or they can have many social relationships and nevertheless feel lonely” .
This is coupled with the fact that historically, college students have been more prone to feelings of loneliness compared to the general populace. Diehl et al. were some of the first to study loneliness in college with an emphasis on transition-related causes, such as moving out for the first time or the formation of new relationships, and concluded that transitions naturally led to loneliness . And indeed, the transition from in-person learning to online learning has been documented to have caused loneliness as well. Killgore et al. studied over 3,000 adults in the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic . The loneliness scores were calculated via a set of online questionnaires including the UCLA Loneliness Scale-3, and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 .
Interestingly, even when communities started to reopen and participants noted that their “sheltering-in-place” was decreasing, their loneliness scores increased significantly from April to May 2020 and eventually plateaued in June, which was attributed to participants adjusting to their situations . Diehl et al. speculated that “[refraining] from handshakes, hugs, and pats on the back,” long-held social behaviors to express closeness “have been radically altered,” leading to the continuation of loneliness even as we re-enter communities .
Indeed, physical touch has been shown to have an important link to loneliness, and even those who are socializing with others, or wouldn’t categorize themselves as lonely, still suffer if they are not touching others. In a study conducted in May 2020, Tejada et al. tested people to see if human touch would affect their feelings of loneliness despite belonging to a culture described as “individualistic” . Tejada et al. explained that individualistic cultures, such as Anglo-Saxon societies, stress independence and neglect physical contact. They found that participants’ loneliness scores generally decreased when they were given a small oil rub by researchers . They calculated the scores using heart rate, questionnaires, and an emotional recognition test . The study essentially proves that even individuals who may view a lack of touch as normal, or those who normally have limited social interaction with others, still feel lonely without direct human contact.
Cognitive decay linked to loneliness
Now that we have established that social isolation leads to a general increase in loneliness, it is important to illustrate the link between loneliness and cognitive decay, which is negatively impacting students’ ability to learn. Cacioppo and Hawkley documented that, in addition to physical health problems such as increased blood pressure, increased levels of stress, and a decrease in physical activity, loneliness also contributes to various mental problems, such as a decrease in IQ and an increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease . While Cacioppo noted that these mental problems were mostly observed in the elderly, there was evidence to suggest that loneliness early on would lead to changes in IQ levels over a lifetime. In young adults specifically, Cacioppo. et al. witnessed in a separate study that lonelier people tend to get more distracted and have a harder time focusing compared to people who did not feel lonely, indicating the lonelier people may have experienced cognitive decay .
So how are we supposed to avoid this cognitive and physical decay? According to Dr. Maggie Mulqueen in a PBS interview, we should practice social distancing, but make a more conscious effort to reach out to people and avoid social isolation. “We need to respect social distancing and hand-washing as our best means right now to save ourselves physically. But we need to really shore people up against social isolation,” she said . Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases and vice chairman of the department of medicine at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts, acknowledged the need for touching one another, and encouraged people to plan demonstrations of affection, even something as simple as a hug, in advance . While it is important to minimize the spread of Covid-19, it is also important to maintain our own mental wellbeing and avoid isolating ourselves socially.
- Hawkley, et al. “From Social Structural Factors to Perceptions of Relationship Quality and Loneliness: The Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study.” November 2008. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 63, Issue 6: S375–S384137. https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/63/6/S375/519628
- Diehl, et al. “Loneliness at Universities: Determinants of Emotional and Social Loneliness among Students.” September 2018. Int J Environ Res Public Health 15(9): 1865. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6163695/
- Killgore et al. “Three months of loneliness during the COVID-19 lockdown.” November 2020. Psychiatry Research 293: 113392. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7430289/
- Tejada, et al. “Physical Contact and Loneliness: Being Touched Reduces Perceptions of Loneliness.” 2020. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology (6): 292–306. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40750-020-00138-0
- John T. Cacioppo, Louise C. Hawkley. “Perceived social isolation and cognition.” 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol 13, Issue 10: 447-454. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661309001478
- J.T. Cacioppo, et al. “Lonely traits and concomitant physiological processes: the MacArthur social neuroscience studies.” 2000. Int. J. Psychophysiol. (35): 143-154 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167876099000495
- Hari Srinivasan. “The impact isolation can have on mental health during the outbreak.” March 22, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the-impact-isolation-can-have-on-mental-health-during-the-outbreak
- Steve Calechman. “How risky is a hug right now?” June 25, 2020. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-risky-is-a-hug-right-now-2020062520329