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On Insular Dwarfism, Social Isolation, and Growing Small…

When I lived in Papua New Guinea, I learned about a phenomenon known as “insular dwarfism”, an actual physical shrinkage due to prolonged island life. I’m not making this up.

It is a process where, over generations, we shrink from standard size to, well, significantly-smaller-than-standard size because the contained environment limits the species’ range and available resources. We are that species.

Yes, island living shrinks us. I’m already on the shorter side, so I spent my three years in Papua New Guinea thinking tall, hoping to retain all 5 feet and 2.5 inches of me.

I swore I would not sacrifice my scarce inches to the island!

My height didn’t change, but I did wonder if my shrinkage was mental. In many ways, island life is like small town life – charming, but still small. So, intellectually, socially, spiritually, we grow smaller to adjust to smaller environments.

And here we are, tenuously starting our post-pandemic lives, crawling out of our caves after one year of living small, each of us on our own island, “socially” isolating.

Mark Manson’s recent Mindf*ck Monday brought all this home for me. He says that yes, social isolation makes us stupid. We’ve lived small – and now we are small.

We’ve shrunk in some important ways – and there’s actually science to prove it. Social isolation has made it harder for us to perform basic cognitive functions – we learn less (and less well), we struggle with problem-solving, we forget basic things.

Living in a small place literally makes us smaller.

We need social connections not just to keep us sane, but to keep us smart. We understand the physical impact of our period of prolonged isolation, but the toll this has taken on our mental and emotional health is still unclear – and probably not good.

So as we poke around trying to reintegrate into normal social life, we might need to start small (to accommodate our smaller size, of course). We might need to go a little slower – and perhaps be a little kinder. We’ve all grown small in our own ways, and this Benjamin Buttoning of our societies won’t be easily reversed.

Even if we’re a little smaller – or slower – or dumber – I can’t wait for us to come back out into the world, to get off our islands, to expand to our full capacity. We’ve been too small for too long.

#COVID #MarkManson #PapuaNewGuinea #socialisolation

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