May 13, 2020

In our latest faculty essay, Assistant Professor of Psychology Ivo Gyurovski ’09 offers an in-depth look at how social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic affects our brains and interpersonal interactions, then offers tools to cope with quarantine.

Ivo Gyurovski headhsotby Ivo I. Gyurovski 

Humans are intensely social, because we evolved to function in groups. Our tall, weak, and hairless bodies do not protect us from the exigencies of the environment. The evolutionary advantage of our species is rooted in its obligatory interdependence, where success is predicated on the ability to plan, reason, and work together. The outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life. In this article, I explore how social distancing and stay-at-home measures can impact individuals’ behavior and mental processes.

The Science of Isolation

Historically, humans have tackled big and difficult questions through the sharing of individually possessed knowledge as well as the collective efforts of groups of individuals, making our history the product of co-evolution between genetic endowment and social structure.

As a result, human sociality encompasses those characteristics most associated with group identity, such as cooperation, group loyalty, adherence to socially learned norms, and fear of social isolation.

Yet the current pandemic has left many of us isolated at home alone, as 28 percent of all U.S. households are single-person. Others are quarantined with family members, but nonetheless experience a variation of loneliness, unable to spend time with friends, colleagues, or extended family. Therefore, it is sensible to ask how social isolation shapes the way we think, feel, and act.

Our brains have evolved to be highly responsive to aversive signals that are designed to motivate survival behavior. For example, when the brain detects changes in energy (e.g. low levels of sugar) it correspondingly triggers a cascade of metabolic and biological processes aimed at restoring energy homeostasis (e.g. eating and feeling satiety).

Social isolation represents another aversive signal. In fact, an overlapping set of brain regions–dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; insular cortex—is responsible for processing both the emotional response to physical pain and the social pain that comes from being isolated from others. Unlike in the case of hunger, however, where aversive signaling makes us engage in behaviors that make us less hungry, the aversive signaling in the case of social isolation does not trigger behaviors that make us less isolated.

Paradoxically, experiencing social isolation or perceived loneliness brings about a vigilant state of mind, where our brain is preoccupied with self-preservation in negative circumstances. We become more focused on ourselves and our own needs, and we allocate more attention to potentially negative social situations, such as competition or conflict. Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ) of the brain

To some extent this occurs because of changes in activation of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). This region enables mentalizing or theory of mind, which is our ability to peek into the minds of others in order to appreciate their point of view. The greater the loneliness people experience, the less activation is observed in the TPJ, meaning that it is that much harder for people to engage in perspective taking, empathy, and shared experiences.

Striatum of the brainThe brain region associated with the processing of rewards and appetitive behavior, the ventral striatum, also responds strongly to pleasant social stimulation—essentially, the lonelier the brain, the less activation that occurs in the ventral striatum. This means that in a state of isolation we experience diminished pleasure from typically pleasant social experiences. 

Experimental manipulations have shown that isolation also changes the way we view others. We tend to form more negative impressions of others, and we fear negative evaluation by others. Interestingly, the capacity of our social skills does not change, but isolation and loneliness along with the corresponding self-preservation focus make us less likely to express the social skills that usually characterize our behavior. We are more likely to find faults in others and act more coldly towards them.

Changes in the way we form impressions of others impact not only interpersonal interactions but also intergroup relations. At the best of times, we have problems with stereotypes and prejudice. The current pandemic will exacerbate not only individual prejudices, but also issues of structural inequality, such as evidence that shows minorities and people of color are disproportionately affected by the virus.

Coping with Isolation

It is also important to watch for issues related to mental health. For many of us it has been hard to adjust to the new normal. We are not only stuck at home but also confronted with having to live together in a confined space. Having to juggle occupational and family obligations can be a challenge anytime, but doing so currently will bring additional stress. In many households, technology and internet access are limited, so coordinating their use may lead to frustration. Not only are our home and work environments drastically different but also the number one topic of conversation and on the news is the pandemic. Therefore, people are much more likely to experience stress, frustration, negative moods, and anger. We are likely to observe increases in the incidences of both anxiety and depression.

Nevertheless, there might be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. People do not consistently act either selfishly or altruistically. The evolution of human sociality favors a balance between self-oriented and group-oriented motivations. We are all united in how isolated we are.

Man is by nature a social animal.


Research shows that affirming a collective social identity promotes cooperation. Faced with a common external threat, such as the pandemic, people tend to band together in a spirit of cooperation and solidarity. Having a common enemy even unifies previously competing groups. For example, at the onset of the epidemic the U.S. was highly polarized along lines of political affiliation and ideology. Containing and eliminating COVID-19 represents a superordinate goal, which overrides differences among individuals and requires cooperative effort. Striving for and accomplishing superordinate goals gives rise to unity.

Some people may be having trouble coping with social isolation during COVID-19. Given the new circumstances of daily life, our usual coping mechanisms may not be sufficient. Research points to a few things people can do in order to cope with these difficult circumstances.

Stay Connected. We are fortunate to experience the pandemic at a time when telecommunications are highly developed. Even though video conferencing cannot replace the comforting touch of a close other, it provides a valuable means to connect. Use phone calls, texts, chats, and FaceTime to interact with others daily. Reach out to people you can count on for social and emotional support, and engage others in meaningful conversation. Now is not the time to iron out your minor or major political differences; rather, focus on what unites you and the experiences you and others have in common. If isolated with family, now is a good time to have those long conversations that, in the past, have been easy to postpone.

Balance Media Consumption. It is important to remain informed of current events; however, overexposure to news, especially regarding the virus, can generate angst. Balance your information seeking with activities unrelated to the virus, while remaining knowledgeable about recent developments. Remember, there is a lot of misinformation regarding the virus. Your Facebook friend does not know better than experts, so rely on trusted, bipartisan sources. The most reliable information regarding the virus will come from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (, and the World Health Organization ( 

Exercise Self-Care. Maintaining a daily routine is a powerful reminder of the structure and purpose that characterized your pre-pandemic life, so develop a daily routine and adhere to it as reasonably as you can. Sleeping enough, eating well, and exercising are essential, as is a balance of work and hobbies. In addition, find time for nature each day. Research shows several salubrious effects of natural environments on the human mind: improving information processing, restoring voluntary attention, and benefiting executive function.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Ivo Gyurovski is an H-SC alumnus, Class of 2009. After finishing his B.A. in psychology and economics, Gyurovski went on to earn his M.A in experimental psychology from the College of William and Mary and his Ph.D. in social psychology and social neuroscience from the University of Chicago. In his research, Gyurovski studies person perception, examining how one's social group of belonging (e.g. race, financial status, etc.) affects processes of attention and judgment as well as their neural correlates. His work is published in Neuroimage, Social Neuroscience, and Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.

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