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Social isolation disrupts future and social thinking

A recent study led by the University of York suggests that the prolonged social isolation and changes in work opportunities during UK’s first lockdown in 2020 were linked with fundamental changes in people’s thought patterns, including disruptions in future-oriented thinking, as well as a pointed decrease in thinking about other people. 

In order to understand the effects of social isolation on cognitive patterns, researchers texted study participants at random times during a period of one week to ask them what they were thinking about. Afterwards, they compared the data they gathered to a similar dataset they had collected before the lockdown.

“Anecdotally people have reported changes in aspects of their mental lives brought about by the pandemic, such as changes in what occupies their thoughts or dreams. Our study is the first to actually document the systematic changes that have occurred in thinking patterns during this unprecedented time,” said study co-author Giulia Poerio, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Essex.

The researchers found that future thinking was significantly reduced during lockdown and seemed to occur at pre-lockdown levels only when people were engaged in work. 

According to lead author Brontë McKeown, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of York, future thinking is generally associated with positive mental health outcomes. Thus, “the fact that this type of thinking was reduced in lockdown may help explain some of the negative emotional changes documented during this time.”

Moreover, social thoughts also seemed to diminish substantially during periods of isolation. These findings suggest that how much we think about other people depends on how much time we spend with them. 

“During prolonged periods of physical isolation, we reduce the amount of time we think about others and when we do get to engage in social interaction, that promotes a bigger increase in our social thoughts,” explained McKeown.

“Our findings are exciting because they show how important our external environment and social interactions are for shaping what is going on internally and suggest that changing our external world could be one way of changing the (mal)adaptive thought patterns that make up so much of our waking lives,” concluded Dr. Poerio.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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