Human contact during social distancing: interview with Robin Dunbar

We are glad to present an interview with Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.

MGM. It’s a pleasure, Professor Dunbar, to have you as a special guest for this number of Chronicles of Narrative Medicine which is dedicated to the body, touch, and body language – and you are outstanding excellence in this field. I’m quite confident that you can help our readers to find solutions in this time of social distancing, when human contact, unless with very intimate people, is “banished”.

RD. Yes, contact – social cohesion – is crucial for the human being. We are primates, and the apes spend hours a day in grooming practice to release endorphins, opiates which are much more powerful than any external opiates pain killers. We love to be hugged and touched but in a very delicate way and only in specific parts of the bodies: this kind of action can produce the release of endorphins and oxytocin’s as well. However, there are other ways, in current times when a handshake is not allowed, to establish social cohesion with the others: laughter, smiles, jokes, sense of humour and sharing interests although it is a complicate era.

MGM. Do you think that there could be psychological damages because of social isolation, before and now? 

RD. Not in the long run. The human being is remarkably resilient: look at what’s happened during the Spanish flu, which lasted three years (1918-1920), or the Black Death in the XIV century and other plagues in the history. If it is a short time of lockdown, such as up to six months, we are very keen to cope. We have to consider the humankind historically since these episodes of zoonosis always occurred in the past centuries and we are somehow physiologically prepared for these emergencies. Now that the lockdown is almost over, we will be a little scared to go outside, to a restaurant for the first time, but at the second we will be more confident, and at the third, we will be back to our normal behaviour.

MGM. So, you think – and this is quite different from other voices of our age – that we will be back to normality, don’t you?

RD. Yes, I confirm it. Same will be for flying: in the beginning, we will be terrified of the journey, but the more we go back with previous practice, the more acquainted we become. Another issue is all this digitalisation that somehow will stay, but a part will be left out. A balance is necessary among real-life presence and distance meeting.

MGM. Distance learning, telemedicine and smart working are the most recurrent words of this period and are thought to be magic solutions here to stay.

RD. Digital networking was already there before the COVID. Personally, my contacts are all over the world, and there is nothing new for me to be on ZOOM: this happens because as an academic, it’s part of my duty, doing knowledge sharing across the world. However, this is only one aspect of my job: interaction with students is also very important, and one thing is to build a class together being there with the body, another is to be far away. Two different outcomes, we should stop pretending that it is the same. Although, and this happens quite often, we open ourselves more in the virtual world, just because we are far away from the others, and this allows the building of empathy and sympathy.

MGM. I never thought about it. It is like when one meets a stranger on the train and starts to tell the whole autobiography.

RD. Yes, it is very similar. I think that there might be some cases in which this distance helps us in opening up and “confess”: the screen is like a confessional curtain which keeps separate the priest and the person who confess something very intimate. But going back to smart working, I think that face to face working is needed: the team are faster when they are in presence, the interactions are continuous; it allows better performance, better quality, not only based on an empathic process. At the beginning of the Nineties in London, companies started to make savings and promote efficiency to delocalise work, where everyone had the home-based technology to keep on working. It was though to be as a revolution: offices rents were not paid anymore. It didn’t work out: one has too many things to do staying both at home and remotely. I’m quite worried that the companies will consider as an alibi the COVID-19 to shut the offices so to make saving and to keep people at home. This is not good in the long run, both for companies’ success and the wellbeing of the people. 

MGM. Coming to our most favourite topic, which is health care, let’s talk about contact and telemedicine. As you know, now it is very much pushed: on the one hand there is the safety of the doctors – since, in Italy, more than 170 doctors and over 40 nurses died of COVID-19; on the other hand there is the quality of care.

RD. We have to consider that when we talk about a patient, we have to take into account vulnerability. In this field, unless for proved safety reason, I would discourage to replace visits at the doctor’s site with a remote visit. The relationship is intrinsic in the therapy, and especially for older people, it is difficult that they can build this kind of involvement in a distance setting. It depends on the type of visit. 

MGM. Yes, if it is a visit to communicate a new diagnosis, and it is possible with all precautions, this should be done at the doctor’s site, with all reasonable caution; if it is an ordinary control visit, maybe, this might be replaced. 

RD. Face to face is essential, especially in times of fragility. Patients go to the doctors also to be listened to. This is already a great act of caring.

MGM. And this is true especially after the prolonged loneliness due to the lockdown. Thank you so much, Professor Dunbar: you taught us the importance of the balance between virtual reality and real-life for social cohesion, and we have given us energies since your optimistic view of resilience of humankind. I’m grateful for your positive opinion.

Post Scriptum

Yes, I felt very relieved after the interview. He gave hope of the resiliency of humankind across the ages: with a sharp mind, he considered the advantages and limits of a forced digital time.

 We have also been saying that alcohol – if moderate, can be an excellent endorphin-releasing factor: we have joked, I mimicked apes’ gestures, it was funny. Probably I would not have behaved this way if I were in the real presence of Prof. Dunbar, the discoverer of the famous Dunbar Number, the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.  

By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, Prof. Dunbar proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. He theorised that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size and that this, in turn, limits group size. The limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained. On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint himself or herself if they met again. 

It was an honour to have met him through technology. Gratitude…

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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