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This article was published on March 24, 2020

The science behind your loneliness

The science behind your loneliness
Tristan Greene
Story by

Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Coronavirus in Context is a weekly newsletter where we bring you facts that matter about the COVID-19 pandemic and the technology trying to stop its spread. You can subscribe here.

As I mentioned during last week’s Big Spam takeover, I’m Tristan. I write for TNW and I’m the editor of Neural, but lately my job’s been all about COVID-19. I don’t know how you’re feeling, but my mental health isn’t exactly peak right now.

I’m stressed out, a little worried, and quite anxious. And I’m not alone. The National Institute of Health says we’re all likely to feel some extra strain during these trying times.

Why’s this a big deal? Because stress and isolation are a terrible cocktail. Remember Castaway starring Tom Hanks — who, ironically is quarantining after testing positive for coronavirus — and his co-star Wilson the volleyball? It turns out that isolation can cause hallucinations and inspire a tendency to talk to inanimate objects. Now, many of us are lucky enough to have access to smartphones and the internet, so we’re a ways off from that, but it definitely brings me comfort to understand the science behind it.

Luckily for everyone, there are some simple things we can do to mitigate this stress. Here’s a really good article on coping with stress during the COVID-19 outbreak from the Center for Disease Control. And here’s some advice on dealing with isolation and stress from someone who spent nearly a year by themselves inside a tiny spaceship. And here’s some science-based recommendations for good measure. 

Me? I’ve been playing my guitar. Last year I wrote about how stressed-out STEM workers should learn to play an instrument and now I’d like to extend that advice to the entire planet. Here’s a picture of me with my guitar as proof:

It’s impossible for me to dwell on mortality rates or infection vectors while I’m head-banging my face off playing some Jack Johnson (judge me all you want, but my rendition of “Banana Pancakes” sounds like something from a Deftones b-side – mostly on accident). Playing music lets me create and control something in the middle of all the chaos.

Most of us aren’t in a position to create a vaccine, make huge government decisions, or solve global issues related to the pandemic. But all of us can do something to make a difference: We can be more patient and kind with each other.

And if you’re the boss – someone who can authorize extra time off – make your people take mental health days and leave work early to “de-stress.” Most of all, generally just don’t be a corporate goon. Your profits can wait, your people’s mental and physical health won’t.

By the numbers

Last week we looked at the reported COVID-19 cases and deaths juxtaposed against the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic from 2009. 

This week we’re looking at how long the swine flu and SARS outbreaks lasted versus how long experts predict the COVID-19 pandemic will last. 

  • 8 months  The SARS epidemic lasted from November 2002 until July 2003. (World Health Organization
  • 12 Months — The H1N1 swine flu outbreak lasted from April 2009 to April 2010. (Live Science)
  • 12 – 18 months — Experts currently project COVID-19 will last 12-18 months from November 2019. (Imperial College London)

Tweet threads of the week


What to read

Amazon Prime, virtual dinners, and “social distancing” vs. “self-quarantine”…

  • Trump’s giving everyone in the US some stimulus money, but the dastardly Democrats keep blocking the bill… because it contains a $500 billion slush-fund for businesses with very little protection for workers. (CNN)
  • “Amazon is hiring aggressively to meet customer demand. Traffic has soared on Facebook and YouTube. And cloud computing has become essential to home workers.” Here’s how Big Tech is actually benefiting from the pandemic. (The New York Times)
  • The machines are hunting the virus: Israel’s using AI to predict where coronavirus will spread next.
  • This pandemic isn’t going down like the movies. Here’s why you shouldn’t expect any mass panic. (Wired)
  • From data journalist Mona Chalabi:

Credit: Nowness

  • Don’t let social distancing ruin Sunday dinner. If you can’t get together at the table, break bread online. Here’s how
  • Futurist Yuval Noah Harari wrote a long read dissecting the morals and ethics of biometric surveillance, and why how we act now will change our lives. (Financial Times $)
  • P.S. If you can’t afford an FT subscription, the audio version is available on Curio, on which you can listen to a limited number of stories for free — but we recommend supporting either!
  • This handy website tells you safe places nearby you can visit during the COVID-19 pandemic.


We know, we know… there are a million articles out there on how to stay sane at home: What yoga moves to do, what sourdough bread to bake, how to pick up a phone and actually call someone… so we’re adding to the noise!

In this section, one of our writers will share one weird internet thing they’ve been obsessing over while in lockdown. Next is from Callum Booth:

A few weeks ago, someone mentioning psytrance would’ve elicited only a pithy comment. You know, something like “oh, the music for white boys with dreads?” But these are strange times…

After being shown a video of a live psytrance performance by someone I’m not going to publicly shame, I began to tumble down a rabbit hole.

Is the music good? Of course not. But it was by some margin the best psytrance I’d ever listened to. Which, I guess, is like saying the best poisonous mushroom that makes you shit yourself to death.

Anyway, this track led to a discussion about psytrance dance styles. And this, in turn, forced me on an adventure to watch some people doing psytrance dances. Here’s an example.

Then, during this search, I came across the promised video. The final part of the psytrance puzzle. You can watch it if you want, but that’s not why it’s so good:  “Sorry about not shufflin all the way through, 4 Years of this shit has taken its toll on my left knee and I also smoke like a chimney and need to breath, So sweaty, Yum.”

I could write thousands of words on why that’s possibly the greatest sentence in human history, but that would be missing the point. Can’t we, in these terrible times, just enjoy something for what it is?

That’s it from Callum! Back to Tristan:

We’ll be back next Tuesday. Until then, be kind to your fellow humans. Keep in mind that we’re all going through a lot. And please don’t take advice from strangers on the internet.

Instead, here’s some official resources for those who are experiencing poor mental health or know someone who is:

Stay healthy and take care of each other,



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