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Following threads, zoombies and the economy of action

Updated: May 11, 2020

One of the great joys of life for me is browsing library and bookshop shelves. You don't know what you'll come across, what you'll learn and how you'll be inspired. The same (but not quite) is what I call following threads in articles. You find a reference to an article, read it, then read the references in that article. And that's what I did on Friday afternoon. Why? I was zoombied out. I was a zoombie - just too much Zoom for one week.

I saw a reference to an article written by Holly Walker, now Deputy Director of the Helen Clark Foundation and former Green MP. (As as aside and I'll claim as another thread, do read her book - The Whole Initimate Mess - for a real account of balancing motherhood, work and caring for your sick partner. I cried at the end.)

Her recent article, published in The Spinoff: The Perils Of Loneliness In The Time Of Covid-19 is insightful. Loneliness affects us psychologically, emotionally and physically - all negatively. Interestingly international studies suggest young people report high levels of loneliness as do the over 75s. She also reports New Zealand research that suggests the quality of our social interactions may be more important than quantity. And of course at the moment we're not getting many.

Now, here's the next thread. Holly Walker quotes a New Yorker article by Robin Wright (23 March 2020): How Loneliness From Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll. And Robin Wright quotes research by James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. And now we're back to zoombies again.

Coan argues that our normal intense sociability expands our bandwidth. Our brains work better and process all sorts of information more efficiently when we're with other people rather than alone. The economy of action is the biological principle he references. Our brains want to operate at the lowest possible cost; being with others lowers the cost of almost everything they do. No wonder we're zoombied; we're having to work too hard in those online interactions.

Robin Wright argues the social isolation and loneliness brought about by the present crisis will bring about increased risks of depression and a sort of PTSD - if it continues. After all, people haven't had their usual outlets - people to talk to face to face.

So, as we move down the levels and get back interacting with others at work, home and in the community, realise your bandwidth will expand and your brain will thank you for it. Back to Coan. Touch, even just holding hands, quietens our brains' emotional activity. Talking online requires far more work. And in the long term, it causes stress. He argues that humans have a dire need to connect; social isolation is a death sentence.

We need to look at the evidence, the science and the research about what we need to function as healthy human beings. After all, that's what we're doing to fight Covid-19. Human contact and interaction is part of who we are.


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