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Posted Friday September, 4th 2020

Evolution of the Social Brain During Physical Distancing

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Recently, I had a vivid memory of what we might now call a “pre-pandemic” time, when physical distancing was not yet a thing. It was triggered by hearing piece of music that I often play at the start of lectures. Suddenly I saw myself standing at a podium in a ballroom in January in front of 1000 people, surveying the audience and getting ready to speak. In the front row there was an old friend who made the journey from out of state to hear me speak and spend time with me. I recalled the conference host who introduced me and I even felt my usual flush of embarrassment in listening to the credentials and accomplishments. We gave each other a firm hug and I looked out at the crowd, some looking at me, others disengaged, still waiting for their coffee to take hold. And some checking their cellphones, caught up in work or dramas miles away from the venue.

The event I recall was months ago and since then I have become regular part of the everyday phenomena of Zoom meetings and webinars. Now I give keynotes to audiences that I rarely see except when individuals are allowed to appear in the question and answer portion of the presentation. It does not matter to me if there are 30 people or 3000; my sense of energy in the “Zoom Room” no longer is a part of the pressure to perform or dynamics of the experience. When I first transitioned to these virtual events, I often imagined what that audience would look like seated in a hotel or conference center. Now I have come to expect that I will just begin to talk to a screen where, at best, I will see a host and likely no one else.

I am conscious that my social brain has now subtly evolved, including the proxemics it once knew in a human-to-human world. Proxemics is a concept that refers to the amount of distance that we are comfortable putting between ourselves and others. On average, American prefer 18-inch distance between themselves and others during a casual exchange, but proxemics preferences vary culture to culture. There are also various forms of personal space including intimate, personal, social, and public. In response to the pandemic, my social brain has recalibrated personal space due to self-preservation and health recommendations. And like everyone else who regularly uses the screen to safely communicate, my personal sense of proxemics is being revised in ways I will only realize once physical distancing is lifted.

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