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What Working From Home Does to Your Brain, According to a Solitary Confinement Expert

It’s long been said — and suggested by research — that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts. Most famously, the co-founders of the Chinese travel website CTrip found that their remote employees ended up making 13.5 percent more calls than those dialing from company headquarters, the equivalent of almost an extra day’s worth of work in a given week.

But research also shows that there’s a catch for all of those solitary commissions. “We’ve evolved to have healthier brains in an environment in which we interact socially with other humans,” says Michael J. Zigmond, a professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh. “When we don’t interact socially, certain things that should automatically happen don’t.”

One big piece of anecdotal evidence, per 39-year-old truck driver Ayisha Gomez (via The New York Times): “I was driving cross-country and stopped in Texas to pick up a cousin of mine. Her sister was having a baby. I said, ‘I’ll take you home to California.’ We hardly talked at all on the trip. You forget how to communicate with people. You’re by yourself constantly. There’s nobody to talk to except when you’re picking up or dropping off a load.”

“People have these derealization experiences in any monotonous occupation,” says Stuart Grassian, an expert in solitary confinement. “Whether it’s driving a truck long distances or sitting at a computer for 10 hours a day with no social stimuli.”

Grassian, however, is quick to make one thing clear: A person working from home isn’t experiencing nearly the same level of isolation as someone in solitary confinement. “In a situation where someone is working from home, yes, they’re being deprived of social stimulation, but there’s still an enormous amount of occupational stimulation,” he says.

Yet he’s sure to add, “People who have been in solitary withdraw from any opportunity to engage. They can’t bear it. It’s too jarring. Everything seems too complex. So I wouldn’t be surprised if a remote worker deprived of social stimuli had a harder time tolerating any form of social situation.”

According to Zigmond, studies of solitary confinement in mice have indicated that there are fewer synapses in the brains of isolated mice compared to socialized mice. Similarly, Grassian adds, “You can see this neurologically in prisoners in solitary confinement after just a few days. A person who is alert shows alpha waves on their EEG exam. A person who’s been in solitary will shift to slow-wave patterns into what’s described as a stupor or delirium.”

Even worse: People who are relatively isolated have shorter lifespans, according to Zigmond. “They get sick more frequently and don’t live as long.”

That’s why he believes the type of social stimulation you experience at work — even if it’s just listening to your coworkers bloviate about things you don’t care about — is as important as the air you breathe. “We evolved to be healthy under a specific set of circumstances: Drinking water, sleeping, eating a certain number of calories and interacting with others.

“That last one is particularly important because humans are social animals by nature. Conversing is part of our survival.”