Helena Boschi looks at how the human brain has been affected by the isolation and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic
A liking for patterns, predictions and models is not unique to actuaries – the brain is constantly looking for patterns in the environment in order to make sense of the world and learn quickly. In the wake of COVID-19, unable to guess what will happen, the brain is not in a good place.
The job of the brain is to keep us alive. It has to adopt a defensive stance in order to sense potential threat and danger before it sees what is safe. This has given us a negatively biased brain that is easily distracted and prone to fast judgments.
Even before COVID-19, the picture was not hopeful. Distracted and consumed by endless data and social media’s pervasive presence, the brain has not been allowed to properly switch off for years. Add to this a biology that has not adapted well to today’s unhealthy lifestyles, and we entered lockdown in poor shape.
Where has lockdown left us?
Continuing uncertainty, bad news at every turn and the removal of our normal social safety net during a time of stress have served only to raise anxiety levels.
Transposing the office day into a digital equivalent has not helped. Regular office rhythms are generally made up of computer work, interspersed with walking to meetings, chatting with colleagues formally or informally, and travelling to and from our workplace. There is a start and an end to our working day, and taking work home is not the same as ‘working from home’.
Our attentional resources are limited and easily wearied, and are now being stretched to their limit by endless time spent on screens. The brain simply cannot cope with this sort of sustained and focused attention without a break, and it makes increasingly bad decisions when it is tired and hungry.
The initial momentum of working from home drove many companies – encouraged and relieved that both people and technology seemed to be working well in this new situation – into making early and sweeping decisions about the future. Some even announced that working from home could be a permanent fixture of their organisational landscape.
However, it now seems that the blurred boundaries between home and work may be having adverse effects on mental health. Our physical separation from colleagues has resulted in an emotional disconnection. We can no longer offer face-to-face reassurance or build our confidence through informal micro-interactions, and our now-limited ability to read people via a screen or through a mask is leading to self-doubt and even paranoia. Scientists detailing the psychological impact of the pandemic are even predicting a secondary epidemic of mental illness.
The less we feel, the more we feel
Like other mammals, humans are social creatures who benefit from physical contact. Taking away opportunities to touch removes a critical aspect of our behavioural repertoire; the tragic Romanian orphanages of the 1980s demonstrated that children need to be in socially responsive situations in order for their brains to develop properly. Without normal interaction, the brain’s executive functions, such as behavioural control, emotional regulation, adaptability and attention, are all impaired.
Amid the high volume of coronavirus-related studies that have been carried out since January 2020, some of the most recent research has investigated the impact of lockdown and our reliance on digital communication. One such study by Queen’s University Belfast has highlighted the relationship between dissatisfaction with digital communication and increased loneliness. Loneliness is not just a mental state; it can wreak havoc on our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.
Another study, carried out by Liverpool John Moore University, has explored the connection between touch and our innate pleasure systems, underlining the need for physical sensation to cement social connection in the brain. When we are denied opportunities to touch, we are less able to tap into the neural networks that strengthen bonds of togetherness.
Being in close quarters with others has intensified relationships for better or worse, while others have been starved of all human contact. A large-scale French study has pointed to a ‘funnelling effect’ on relationships, whereby focus is narrowing on some at the expense of others. All of this will leave a scar that will need to be examined in the future – but for now we need to continue to seek ways to connect with those around us.
“Our attentional resources are now being stretched to their limit by endless screen time”
Trying to control the uncontrollable
Humans don’t handle any restriction well. Fear is used to control us, but anger mobilises us to act. Across the world, emotions have heightened, sending us reaching for groups that offer meaning and purpose. Different and warring tribes have come together and united against common causes. The ingroup-outgroup bias that offers us a sense of psychological security is now stronger than ever: it provides certainty in an uncertain world.
Language is our principal tool for defining and categorising our experiences. World leaders needing to showcase their authority have relied on metaphors of war – but this has been shown in the medical world to have the opposite effect on patients suffering from a disease that they are told to ‘fight’.
Actuaries and automacity
As our motivation and energy levels wane, we must find ways to remain active and keep going. This means creating small rewards that fuel a chemical called dopamine (our ‘motivation molecule’), which is released in anticipation of something pleasurable. The more dopamine we release, the more we want, and as long as we keep this carefully balanced, our drive to achieve won’t spill over into addiction. Too little dopamine and we can become listless; too much and we can become frenzied.
Experts such as actuaries normally need little motivation to practise their expertise. However, what if changing times demand a new set of skills?
Any expert achieves automacity in the brain. This means that, through practice and repetition, the brain has fortified its synaptic connections, leading to an eventual slowing down of brain waves that indicate increased co-ordination and efficiency. Automacity takes time, effort and patience – and so does changing it.
On the one hand, expertise frees up the brain to engage in new learning by sending automatic processes below our level of awareness – imagine if, after driving for years, we still had to pay attention to every single action and manoeuvre in a car for the rest of our life. On the other hand, once we become unconsciously reliant on our expertise, other habits may creep in. When it is out of our conscious view, expertise is harder to change. Learning effectively requires neural rewiring, then practice and repetition in order to hardwire new skills into the brain’s structure.
In addition to this, the brain suffers from natural inertia, preferring to follow well-trodden paths for ease and efficiency. The forced change that COVID-19 has brought about is good for our brains, which are reluctant to deviate from old and familiar patterns. The key is to recognise that change requires determination, tenacity and being prepared to fail – which is not easy for professionals whose skills are tied to their success and reputation.
Strengthening us for the future
Resilience is, for the most part, built on adversity. Difficult times tend to strengthen our psychological system, just as antibodies in a vaccine will boost our immunity.
Most of us can cope with more than we think, and we often don’t know what we are capable of until we are faced with it. Looking back at what we have achieved – and celebrating it – is a big part of this. It is even better when we have worked together with others to build collective competence.
Dr Helena Boschi is the author of Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Our Brain to Get the Best Out of Ourselves and Others (Wiley, 2020). She is a psychologist who focuses on applied neuroscience in the workplace