What has the pandemic done to our brains? - THINKERS Notebook

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What has the pandemic done to our brains?

This week is the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic changing the world.

I'm a sports fan, especially basketball. So my mind will often mark time by where events occur on the basketball calendar.

For me, the pandemic became real when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive, prompting the NBA to shut down its season. College basketball similarly shut down its conference tournaments and the multi-billion dollar annual March Madness tournament. 

I'm sure you have your own personal mental markers for when the pandemic made its life-altering imprint on your life. I hope they are as benign as mine are. But this disease, and the many cascading impacts of the pandemic it has caused, have been anything but benign for so many people.

Regardless of how COVID-19 first weaseled its way into your world, one thing has become pretty clear a year later: we've all been impacted profoundly by this pandemic and the changes it has brought.

Some of those changes -- more people getting the ability to work from home! -- have been interesting, even positive.

Many other changes -- children not in school, separation from loved ones, the lingering effects of the disease itself, etc. -- have had negative effects that we're only now beginning to unpack.

Here's what we know for certain: our world is different, and won't ever be the same even once we have the pandemic under more firm control. Some senses of normalcy (dining out) will eventually return. Others (local restaurants forced to shutter for good) will not.

And even on the most micro of levels -- ourselves, our bodies, our brains -- some things are very different now than they were one year ago.

How could they not be when so many elements of our daily and weekly routines were altered in such an abrupt manner?

In this week's THINKERS Roundup, I am sharing three articles that discuss the impact of these changes on that micro level. What has the pandemic's impact been on us, on our mental health, on our ability think clearly? We're still figuring it out, but there are some things we're learning already.

Now is a good time to take stock of what's changed, so that we can be proactive about keeping any good changes and doing what is necessary to reverse the course of any negative changes.

The first step is awareness. May these articles help you approach the 13th month of the pandemic (and whatever may lay beyond it) with as much self-awareness and perspective as possible.

What have we learned about ourselves during the pandemic?

"You can’t wait to be back in crowds, but even more than that, you can’t wait until being back in crowds again has lost its novelty. You don’t want going out to feel like a rebuke to the pandemic. You just want it to feel like before. You don’t want to see crowds on TV and flinch anymore.​"

Read: You are not the person you were before the pandemic (Fast Company)


Are we forgetting how to be normal?

"We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.

"Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” said Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory."

Read: Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain (The Atlantic)


How to be proactive about combating the negative impacts of the pandemic

"Be kind to yourself and others. Try to stay positive and use this time to spend more time with your children or spouse, try things you’ve been putting off, such as taking an online class, learning a new skill, or getting in touch with your creative side.

"It can be hard to think past what is going on today, let alone in a week or in six months, but give yourself permission to daydream about the future and what is on the horizon. Remember that this is temporary, and things will return to normal."

Read: Protecting your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic (Johns Hopkins)

Quote of the week

"Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats."

-- Voltaire