The season to be merry

It’s time to learn to laugh again says neurologist and local resident Sophie Scott 

Sophie Scott
Sophie Scott

A big feature of the fallout from Covid has been our return to public spaces. Sometimes it’s been tough – many of us will have experienced tongue-tied encounters as we relearn how to speak to people outside our bubbles. 

Small wonder, as Covid has been like a huge experiment, says neurologist Sophie Scott. “Right at the start of the pandemic, when we went into lockdown, I can remember saying to my partner (who’s also a neuroscientist) that we should scan everybody’s brains,” she says. “Because seeing what this will do to us will be extraordinary.” It was particularly difficult as humans are social primates, adds Scott. “We’re very reliant on our social networks and the main way that we maintain them is by chatting to people – meaning that things like serendipitous bumping into people in streets and shops is important. 

“Those kind of things may feel like a trivial part of your day, but actually you’re reinforcing your social network. So removing people from that is completely devastating, at the same time as losing much of your ability to see the people you’re really close to as well. I’m the extroverts’ extrovert and love going out and meeting people but I’m noticing my own reluctance to do that, and having to make myself move. Like many, I retreated and I’m having to push myself back out there.” 

This is because our social ‘muscles’ withered during the pandemic. “Our networks were put under terrible strain and we had to invent reasons to get in touch,” says Scott. “Although we set up Zoom calls – better than nothing, but not the same – it has been like a weird experiment on our brains, and on our ability to communicate with each other. When we talk about loneliness, one of the worst things that can happen is the removal of social networks. Now all of us have been pushed in that direction and some were more fortunate than others. 

“I was locked down with my partner and our son so I was lucky. I knew students in lockdown who didn’t even live in the UK and who didn’t see anybody and they were unlucky in comparison. But it constrained all our social lives, and we had to learn to cope.” 

Does Scott think our emotional lives have changed for good? “Well, there was a really terrifying study done before lockdown where they tracked a lot of people over a long timescale,” she says. “What they found was the lonelier people got, the less empathetic they became, which is an interesting demonstration of the fact that social emotions like empathy and laughter are things that we get good at through practice, and we need to be with other people to maintain them. 

“A laugh is a very good example of an expression of social joy and it’s something we do when we’re with other people – indeed, you’re 33 times more likely to laugh with somebody else than if you’re on your own. “That was one of the hardest things with lockdown – it was hard to find reasons to laugh and learn. Maintaining social bonds is a very important way of reinforcing relationships with people you know, and for making new relationships – and it was suddenly gone. And it’s very hard to do online. Zoom, for example, is terrible for laughter because it prioritises the spoken word.” Scott was able to remedy this to a degree. 

“One thing I did in the first lockdown, after making sure we had food, I said to my partner and son that at the end of each day at 5.30pm we’d stop home-schooling and working, sit down and watch something funny. Every single day we watched something like Brooklyn Nine Nine, to create a reason to laugh together.”

Post-lockdown, a lot of people have also become worried about their memories. “It’s very common for people to have had problems with their memory during and after lockdown,” says Scott. “Because every day becomes very similar to every other day. Even weekends aren’t different and everything just merges.” In terms of our attention spans, social media hasn’t exactly helped. 

“Remember, their policy is to grab your attention and we have endless pressure from these apps saying ‘look at me’,” says Scott. “The more they’ve got your attention, the more they can refine the algorithms to send you more. They’re like a machine for stealing your attention – and it’s worth doing the odd diet.” Scott doesn’t get involved in conversations on Twitter any more, for example: “There’s no point. Nobody’s mind is changed.”

So, how can we make ourselves feel good again this winter? “Some people consider Christmas to be a bit cheesy but basically every culture that’s not on the equator, has a celebration at the deepest, darkest point of winter when the days are shortest,” says Scott. 

“It’s a way to try and cheer things up at that time and worth embracing. Anything that gets humans dedicated to enjoying themselves for a while is worth valuing, and what was so shocking last year that suddenly all the things we planned, we couldn’t do any more. You couldn’t see people, or go to the shops and buy presents. 

“This may sound trivial, but one of the most important things for your mood is to have something to look forward to. Last year when I had Covid, I’ve never looked forward to Christmas so much in my whole life – and then it all went peculiar. But we still found ways of doing things to make it special. So have something to look forward to. It could be anything. It doesn’t have to be Christmas, but give yourself something – even if it’s the promise of a walk in the park to see the parakeets.” 

And if you can build up your social networks again, says Scott, so much the better. “There’s evidence that if you give people a common purpose, they can all feel like they’re working towards something where everyone’s got a stake. There was a study in the Middle East looking at persecuted groups of people and they got the opportunity to play football with diverse teams, drawn from very different sides of a conflict.

“They found tremendous cohesion, because they had a new role: playing together. So if you can find just one thing with a common goal – and it doesn’t have to be football, it could be a church or other community activity – where people are acknowledged and recognise that they’re doing it together, it’s one of the best ways of building cohesive communities.”

Meet Sophie Scott Professor Sophie Kerttu Scott, CBE, is a neuroscientist and the director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. A Clerkenwell resident, Scott’s work has been devoted to investigating the neuroscience of voice, speech and laughter. With various awards to her name, she has also done standup comedy, Ted talks and the Royal Institution’s annual Christmas Lectures – not to mention being on BBC TV series ‘Horizon’ in a programme called ‘The Science of Laughter’ with comedian Jimmy Carr.