As Cyclone Tauktae ravaged the western parts of the country the skyline in the national capital grew ominously darker in the early morning hours of Wednesday. Slick sheets of rain poured outside while I sat in my room reading the daily newspaper bewildered at this unexpected change of weather at this time of peak summer. My wife sat on the balcony sipping her regular hot cuppa overlooking the heavy downpour when her attention was suddenly intercepted by a beautiful green Indian Parakeet who flew out of nowhere and sat chirping on the black railing. Without wasting any further time, the parakeet flew and sat on her lap as if wanting to play or chit-chat over morning tea. As an avid Instagrammer, she quickly took her phone to take a pic and simultaneously called out to me. I stopped short of reading the article that ‘India recorded 4000+ COVID deaths - most on any single day’ when I heard a startling loud squawky sound coming from the balcony.
As I stepped out of the room to see, I saw a green & red bird calmly perched on my wife’s head. Little did she realize that her new green admirer had lowered its head as if all set to pluck every last strand of her on that head. Knowing very well the importance of this touchy subject of hair (and hair loss) in a human’s life, I rushed to the kitchen for a bowl of roasted peanuts to distract our new friend. The moment I handed over a green bowl, this feathery creature looked straight at me as if in amazement at the bowl’s color matching that of its skin but quickly got off her head and onto my wife’s shoulder.
The distraction plan had worked but instead of thanking me for saving her hair (and head) my wife, as if out of some OCD, was quick to instruct me to take out my phone and take a video to post on our internal family chat group. We both quickly grappled with what to do about our new guest which had serendipitously flown to us and decided to take it inside. Pets invoke some neural activity in our brains and the idea to bring home a new pet or a sudden decision to adopt one gives our mind a dopamine rush firing the social centers in the brain, which is much needed, especially in such troubled times.
When Gillian Matthews, a researcher from Imperial College, and her colleagues, conducted an interesting experiment in 2015, in which they intentionally doped some lab rats, the results were surprising. In a novel study, to measure neural activity they gave saline solution to some rats and cocaine to others. They attached patch clamps to measure brain activity just like you measure current using a multi-meter. Hoping to measure the higher synaptic responses in cocaine-injected rats in comparison to saline-injected ones, what they saw intrigued them. Both the category of rats experienced heightened brain activity. Now, why would saline-injected rats show any neural activity in comparison to their doped subjects? The saline-injected rats weren’t stimulated in any way so why would they show any neural activity at all? It turned out that the researchers had isolated both these categories of rats for twenty-four hours before in order to prevent any spill-over effects that the hyperactive cocaine-injected rats may have on the saline-injected ones if kept together. This isolation had caused heightened neural activity even in the saline-injected rats, stimulating those brain centers that regulate serotonin (a hormone responsible for giving the ‘happy’ feeling) and other psychological functions like learning and memory. They published their study in Cell magazine concluding that the neural pain of isolation inspired the mice to be social.
I sat alone in the room on the bed completely frozen as our new guest, who my daughter christened Piku (after the Deepika Padukone’s classic) sat eating on a chest of drawers placed at a distance, completely unperturbed by my presence in the room. Pecking patiently at the boiled rice we had served her, she intermittently raised her head as if to analyze her surroundings. Anxiety and apprehension from even this small creature had gripped me so much that I didn’t dare to even stare at her and quietly browsed through the social media feed on my mobile, hoping that she didn’t see me. Somehow realizing the lonely atmosphere in the room, as if by Murphy’s Law that – if things can go wrong they will, she suddenly flew and stood right in front of me on the bed. I was literally frozen as she began walking towards me with her penguin-like gait. She stopped midway as if now to do a possible threat analysis but probably because she found me cuter than expected this ‘lonely’ creature completed the rest of the way up to me fearlessly and pecked on my blue jeans (Lol!) as if finally breaking-the-ice. Isolation and loneliness are aversive and unsafe to even the most innocuous of species. Research is known to show a decrease in lifespan, and an increase in stress levels causing strokes not only in humans but in any social non-human species too. The pain of loneliness acts as a forcing function encouraging any species held in isolation to become more social.
Piku had warmed up to me or rather I should say I had now warmed up to her. Barring aside the afternoon time when she attended online drawing classes with my daughter or distracted my wife from typing by sitting on her laptop, the evening for me was particularly very eventful with her. During the noontime, however, I had to look after my other friend i.e. my pet dog who throughout the day had been extremely anxious as to ‘what the hell was going on in this house?’ So when the time came for Piku to be fed in the evening and finally to say good night I walked into the room where we had kept her, out of sight from my dog. I looked around to see where she was and found her sitting on the cupboard top. She was attracted to a suitcase kept there and was gnawing feverishly at it like a child having teething problems. Sensing the damage that she might cause to other stuff kept there, I showed her my watch that I loosened and wrapped around my left-hand knuckles area. On seeing the silver metal watch Piku was quick to shift her focus from gnawing at the suitcase handle to gnawing at my watch for which she had developed some fetish during our morning encounter. What was pretty cool was, that while pecking at my watch she gently walked over to my knuckles and eventually onto my raised hand which I now brought closer down to my body. There she was now sitting firmly on my hand quietly pecking at the side buttons of my watch. This was an A-ha moment for me and felt like a scene right out of Amitabh Bachchan’s famous Coolie movie, in which he boldly held the eagle Allah-rakkha on his hand!
Now that I felt like an instant bond with her I used this as an opportunity to introduce her to a cage that we had got. But she was intuitive enough to realize that I was using my watch as bait to control her, so as soon as I brought my hand near the cage, she climbed up gnawing at my shirt, and onto my left shoulder. Then when I got my watch towards my left shoulder on which she sat in order to lure her, she walked over to my right shoulder. And then when I got my watch near my right shoulder she sensed the trap and walked over to my left shoulder. All this while her walking on my shoulders felt like a tickling sensation! But her message was clear to me – ‘please don’t confine me to a cage as it will kill me.’
Human confinement and loneliness are just like this. The pandemic has made us realize that apart from the physically debilitating effects that it can wreak on us (and not to forget the many who have left us!) the home isolation, the lack of human connection and the feeling of loneliness motivates us, in the form of a pent-up feeling to seek the safety of some form of companionship. It modulates the dopamine reward system in our brain. Researches published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology show that in the same way hunger, thirst and pain motivate us to seek food, water, and safety, loneliness (and isolation) motivates us to create new, repair old and maintain our existing social relationships. That’s what was maybe pent up inside me when I felt a bond with Piku.
The fortuitous arrival of our feathery friend not only brought in a ray of happiness for me in these troubled times but acted as a remedy to the neural pain I felt with this isolation and a form of loneliness of staying confined to the four walls of the house. Maybe it was a remedy for her too or maybe she was just flying around and spreading happiness to homes in such adverse times!
P.S. Sadly, with a heavy heart we had to let Piku go, as she wasn’t the kind who would want to be confined to a cage and with my pet dog around it wouldn’t have been safe for her. However, we go to know that she finally found a home, three stories above us where she roams free. We were happy!
P.S.S. Oh, and by the way, the new owners even retained her name as Piku!
Footnotes & References:  Research undertaken on fruit flies by two scientists published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences  Reference from “Social Isolation Delays the Positive Effects of Running on Adult Neurogenesis” published in Nature Neuroscience by Alexis Stranahan, David Khalil, and Elizabeth Gould.  Reference from “Social Isolation Delays the Positive Effects the Development of Obesity & Type 2 Diabetes in Mice” published in Endocrinology by Katsunori Nonogaki, Kana Nozue, and Yoshitomo Oka.  John Cacioppo & Willian Patrick in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection  John Cacioppo & Stephanie Cacioppo in “The Phenotype of Loneliness’ in European Journal of Developmental Psychology