The Social Brain and Emotional Contagion: COVID-19 Effects

Written by:
Anna Valenzano, Alessia Scarinci, Vincenzo Monda, Francesco Sessa, Antonietta Messina, Marcellino Monda, Francesca Precenzano, Maria Pina Mollica, Marco Cartenuto, Giovanni Messina, Giuseppe Cibelli * Medicina, 2020

The findings in a nutshell

The authors examine the relationship between COVID-19 and mental health and social interaction (especially ‘emotional contagion’) as the default mode by which individuals communicate with their surroundings. They find that, although the proportion of COVID-19 patients with neurological disorders varies amongst studies, there is evidence of a rise in people reporting mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety.

Implications for Australian workplaces

Employers, insurers and government all have a role to play in easing the mental health burden as relates to COVID-19. Approaches include the provision and delivery of tools and stress management strategies to improve coping responses. Interventions should be geared to effectively manage the complexity of behavioural impairment including both neurological disorders (e.g. fear and anxiety) and neurocognitive disorders (e.g. attention and memory impairment, learning deficits).

Overview of paper

This editorial review examined social interaction as the default mode by which individuals communicate with their surroundings and the long term consequences of COVID-19 on mental health and wellbeing. The main goal of the review was to better understand the relationships COVID-19 has with emotional impairment and brain damage in terms of mental health burden.

Specifically, it examines the ‘emotional contagion’ – defined by the authors as the mechanism by which people’s emotions (positive or negative) become ‘viral’ within groups and can influence people’s thoughts and actions. Past research supports the close relationship between viral epidemics and psychological distress. In addition to the social effects of COVID-19 the review considers potential brain damage that can be caused by COIVD-19 and the impact the damage may have on behaviour.

According to the authors, mental health can be compromised in a number of ways from the COVID-19 pandemic. This article explores social interaction and the different ways that psychological distress can be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The causes of mental health burden include:

  • Measures put in place in over 80 countries to reduce virus transmission such as social distancing and lock downs. Such measures have caused fear, social isolation and loneliness, changes in daily habits, financial insecurity – all which are risk factors linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder and with potential long-lasting effects on brain functions.
  • The exchange of negative ideas, beliefs, feelings and moods. In social theory the brain responds to the messages in a variety of ways. The authors explain how messages can alter perception and the assessment of significance/threat (appraisal theory and mirror system/mimic neurons) and in turn create a response of empathy and shared beliefs, ultimately changing people’s behaviour in terms of ‘action-tendencies’ (how they think and act). As a result the negative messages shared on social media relating to COVID-19 can increase feelings such as anxiety and fear. COVID-19 has generated different forms of psychological distress, from mild through to severe symptoms. The authors acknowledge that the variance has not yet been scientifically explained.
  • Brain damage due to the ability of the COVID-19 virus to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause damage such as brain swelling and stroke, particularly to the areas referred to as the ‘social brain’ that are responsible for social cognition such as emotion, attention, learning, memory, mood and pleasure/motivation. However, the authors note the scarcity of evidence on brain tissue involvement.

To find out more about The Social Brain and Emotional Contagion: COVID-19 Effects read the full article here.

Date published: 28 October 2020

Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, University of Foggia, Foggia, Italy; Department of Education Sciences, Psychology, and Communication, University of Bari, Bari, Italy; Department of Experimental Medicine, Section of Human Physiology and Unit of Dietetics and Sports Medicine, Naples, Italy; Clinic of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry, Department of Health, Physical and Preventative Medicine, Naples, Italy; Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, University of Naples, Naples, Italy

The authors of this paper were from the above institutions and contributed equally to this work.

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