Social distance in the time of coronavirus


Institutional Communication Service

30 March 2020

In a short clip, Rosalba Morese, postdoc assistant at the Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society and at the Institute of Public Health of USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, talks about our emotional reactions to social distance, an aspect that we need to deal with in our daily lives. This contribution, linked to the field of social neuroscience, is part of the "Brain Awarness Week" an initiative, which takes place annually at this time all over the world, including the Swiss Italian-speaking region.

The perception of physical, psychological, emotional and social distance if often a distressing experience arising from the perception of actual or potential psychological distance from close others or a social group. According to Social Psychology this happens because social belonging is a fundamental need of all human beings: feeling part of one or more groups plays an important role in defyining of our social identity. "In the international scientific literature - explains Morese - we talk about social pain. Eisenberger (2012) defines it as one of the most painful and emotionally unpleasant conditions that a person can feel, because it involves the risk of damaging the ability to relate to other individuals". But what happens in our brain? During the meeting at L'ideatorio "A chat with the expert", Morese mentioned some sophisticated techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), used to investigate the brain areas involved in this type of experience. "The results that emerge from many researches indicate that feeling excluded recruits the brain areas involved during the experience of physical pain, the anterior insula and the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex". These results highlight many characteristics common to social pain and physical pain, from the use of similar words (i. e., I feel hurt, I feel discomfort, pain) to biological mechanisms" continues Morese.

Is it possible to alleviate this kind of pain? A recent study, published in the international journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Morese and his colleagues from the University of Vienna and Turin, investigated for the first time the effects of different types of social support on the activation of brain areas of social pain. "After the experience of social pain, two different kind of social support were provided to each participant by a loved one: emotional support, conveyed by gentle touch and appraisal support, implemented as informative text messages. Emotional support decreased negative emotions while appraisal support increased the activation of the brain in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area usually associated with the regulation of negative emotions and which is frequently triggered in depressed patients". How do you explain these results? "We could further explain how physical contact given by a loved one can make us feel better and simply reading text messages can actually amplify the perception of social distance and negative emotions. In this very complex period, distance becomes a new social dimension to deal with in concern of our emotional experience. It could be useful to resort to communication tools that allow us to maintain relationships with our social reference groups through interactive tools that are not only text messages, but more engaging such as systems, platforms and audiovisual supports" continues Morese. To feel closer to each other during this global emergency, we should dig into our emotional resources, individually and as a group, and implement new ways to socialise.


The video message is available (in Italian) in the gallery at the bottom of this page and on USI Youtube channel.



Eisenberger N. I. (2012). The neural bases of social pain: evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosomatic medicine, 74(2), 126–135.

Morese, R., Lamm, C., Bosco, F. M., Valentini, M. C., & Silani, G. (2019). Social support modulates the neural correlates underlying social exclusion. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 14(6), 633–643.

Social distance