Thinking Social

Now more than ever, finding new ways to forge social connections is important for brain health, explain the experts at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA).

Humans are by nature social beings. As such, we are not built for times like these that involve prolonged physical distancing and social isolation. Yet, human beings are adaptive and there are ways we can safeguard our health even during times of physical distancing.

When isolated, our physical, emotional, and mental health is at risk of worsening. Total isolation has been compared to the negative health impacts of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and other negative health factors, such as obesity. Similarly, lack of physical touch with others can negatively impact our self-esteem and increase rate of depression.

However, according to researchers at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), there is a way you can safeguard your health despite isolation, by using ‘social cognition’. “Social cognition is a term for your social thinking abilities,” says Rhiagh Cleary, part of the Social Cognition Ageing (SocCog) team, who are looking at its effects over an individual’s lifespan.

“The great thing about using these social-thinking abilities is that you can enhance your feeling of social bonding even when you are not in physical contact with one another.”

Social cognition encompasses the ability to recognise, predict and empathise with emotions and to tailor our behaviour appropriately. The more we practice using our social cognition, the more opportunity we have to bond and to stay engaged with our communities.

“One of the best ways to do this is to treat strangers like acquaintances,” says Rhiagh. She advocates that we should try to find connection in the uncommon ground, rather than only seeking out those with interests and outlooks in common. “Practicing stepping into the shoes of a stranger and seeing things from alternative perspectives helps our intellectual bonding, and helps keep us healthy in times of isolation.”

CHeBA researchers on the Social Cognition Ageing Project are looking forward to learning more about social cognition. For the past two years, the team have worked with adults aged 60 to 100-plus, looking at how our social abilities change as we grow older. They want to characterise what is a healthy change in socialisation, versus the sort of change that could indicate an underlying health issue.

In the meantime, the researchers will use the knowledge gained so far to help support people during periods of isolation and post-isolation. The key message is that physical distancing does not have to equate to social isolation, and that we should all keep practising social cognition for a healthier life.

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