Deprive people of interactions with peers, and their social skills will atrophy. This is yet another effect of the wretched pandemic.

The privation sends our brain into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognize and  appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hypervigilant and oversensitive.

Layer on top of that seemingly capricious virus and we're all tightly coiled for fight or flight.

You get a sidelong glance and immediately think the other person dislikes you. A confusing comment is interpreted as an insult. At the same time you feel more self-conscious, fearing any missteps will put you further at risk.

As a result, social situations, even a friendly phone call, becoming something to avoid. People start to withdraw, rationalizing they are too tired, didn't like the person much to begin with or there's something they'd rather watch on Netflix.

It's a phenomenon that the British physician Beth Healey knows all too well. She spent a year at a remote outpost in Antarctica as part of a team doing research for the European Space Agency.

''We had quite a lot of training before we went about how returning home can be difficult,'' she said. ''You kind of laugh it off, thinking it won't happen to you.''

But sure enough, when Dr. Healey re-entered civilization in early 2016, she said she felt  uneasy. ''One of my good friends met me in New Zealand and I could feel myself hiding behind her a little bit when checking in at the hotel,'' she said. ''Normally, I'd have been happy to take the lead but I was hoping they would speak to her.''

For months, she was nervous getting on a bus and overwhelmed going to the supermarket. 

''It was really strange and feels similar to what we are seeing now after the isolation'' because of the of the coronavirus, she said. ''But in a way, it was easier coming out of Antarctica into the world because nobody else felt the same way and now everyone is being a bit weird.''

Some of her fellow crew members has such a hardtime adjusting that they immediately signed up to go back to Antarctica.

The same thing often happens to soldiers returning from a long deployment and also prisoners released after years in solitary confinement. Even if they come home to supportive families, within days or weeks they want to go back.

''I don't want to make an equivalence between prisoners in solitary confinement and what all of us are going through now but there are definite similarities,'' said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at  the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the effects of isolation on inmates.

''People feeling uncomfortable with other people is part of what happens when denied the normal social contact that we so much depend on.''

In every interaction you have to make countless intuitive adjustments - interpreting words, gestures and expressions and reacting appropriately. You have also got to get the timing and pacing right, as well as titrate how much to share and with whom.

Social interplay is one of the most complicated things we ask our brains to do. In normal circumstances, we get a lot of practice, so it becomes somewhat seamless. You don't think about it. But when you have fewer opportunities to practice, you get off your game.

The surreal and clunky quality of virtual or masked interactions just makes matters worse.

The Honor and Serving of the latest Global Operational Research on Virus, and its Social effects on the world, continues. The World Students Society thanks author Kate Murphy.


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