What might the Coronavirus pandemic be doing to our brains?

What might the Coronavirus pandemic be doing to our brains?

‘Use it or lose’ it is the key message we receive about keeping our brain on top form.  So how will these weeks of screen-based experience affect our neuronal circuits?  We are social animals and yet now, for the most part, are carrying out both family and work engagements online.  Well, thank heaven, as even five years ago I don’t suppose we would have had the technology to keep companies and teams working together on projects in quite the efficient way that they can today.  And yet it is just not the same thing, is it?

A friend of mine who lives alone wrote poignantly this week “it aches having no touch of human flesh” and that is the crux isn’t it.  Touch is a basic human need.  Babies who do not receive loving touch can die, so without it we can wither.  In many homes across the world isolated people are aching for human contact beyond the screen and there are weeks of loneliness stretching ahead of them.  There’s a silence of battling along through the longing.

And I wonder what it is doing to children’s brains, not to interact with their friends and peer group in the real world?  The tussle of the playground and classroom are where we build our identities and come to understand why we get along with one group of friends and not with another.  We then build our close networks of support – tribes, or however you like to describe them.  Chatting online to friends is simply not the same as the rough and tumble of school life, especially as young children are not always adept at phone conversation.

Teenage years are when the brain goes through radical change, trimming away at neural pathways that are no longer needed and building new ones, as new information and events occur in the young person’s life.  For girls particularly, the rich chatter of girlfriends is key to building a sense of self and also of support.  It’s a time to share experiences of growing up, first bras, first periods, confidences, fears and excitements.  Social media, as we have learnt, can be both wonderful and terrible, a great source of support and fellowship but also a hell of bitchiness and vitriol.  How much harder to navigate this when one is not actually seeing one’s close friends in the flesh but sitting alone in a room, isolated.  However much one might receive love from parents, it is not the same thing as that camaraderie of friends.

The brain has plasticity, which means it physically changes according to the tasks we give it.  It is well known that London black cab drivers have a larger network of neurons around the area for spatial awareness.  But should they change career, so their brain will adapt and change, as all our brains do.

So what will these weeks of screen do to developing brains, I wonder?  We already hear of the tendency for teenage boys to isolate themselves in their rooms to play endless screen-based games.  In Japan this phenomenon is known as hikikomori and over half a million young people, boys in particular, have been identified as shunning social contact.  Studies in Japan, South Korea and Spain have found a link with internet addiction.  This kind of pattern could too easily develop as habit in many teenage boys across the world now, as sports and other companionable activities are closed to them.  Making boundaries around screen time will become all the more important.

We have been reading the neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield’s essay “You and Me: The Neuroscience of Identity” published by Notting Hill Editions, in which she investigates what happens in the brain as we build a sense of identity.  She is interested in consciousness and how much develops unconsciously from our environment but she also describes her observations on how screen-based activities shape our brains, just as any other activity does so, but potentially differently in the two-dimensional world.

In the context of Coronavirus, for example, if young people spend six hours a day in home-schooling compared to face-to-face school learning, how might that alter the way the brain adapts to the information it receives?  The majority of information enters us through our five senses and, in a classroom, a child is hearing other people, sensing their physical presence, listening to a teacher impart knowledge, asking and answering questions, feeling their body on a chair, perhaps exchanging glances or smiles with others in the room, maybe tasting a glass of water and I suspect we can all remember a sense of the smell of the schoolroom?  In my case I can remember the sounds of the playground, echoing hallways, teachers’ whistles, the ghastliness of Bronco toilet paper and an all-pervasive smell of over-boiled cabbage!  Screen-based learning is better than nothing but certainly is not the same holistic experience, which I would prefer any day, cabbage and all.

As a business trainer I know that everyone in a room gained so much from the live interaction of a workshop environment, information shared by me but also knowledge and experience shared one to another, quite often in the form of jokes or amusing stories.  So much learning was gained in the room, and there are plenty of studies to demonstrate that the more senses that are used in education the better the memory of that information.

But the other problem about screen-based activities is that there can be objectification, particularly in games where so often the violence implicit within the game would be totally unacceptable in real life.  Yet because it is on screen there is a detachment from empathy and a focus on the often brutal and cold result of winning, activating the dopamine and serotonin systems that also play a part in addictive behaviours.  The fast pace of these games and activities could be a reason for an increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as the young brain is exposed so frequently to a world of fast action-reaction.  The kind of books my generation read as children are now regarded as far too slow and boring!

Unlike in real life, these games do not have a consequence in the real world, so it is easier to detach from any sense of reality.  A study of 1400 college students in the USA a few years ago showed a decline in empathy over the last thirty years, with a particularly sharp drop in the last decade.  Studies have not so far showed any direct causal link but it doesn’t take a lot to realise that two-dimensional screen time will inevitably be rewiring the brains of our young and it is wise to keep an eye on how they develop their social skills in the real world.

This is not in any way intended as any kind of rejection of technology.  It is absolutely marvellous – within boundaries.  I have been using Zoom for meetings and it works very well, though I am aware that for those who are shy or awkward it can make people feel ‘on the spot’ in a way that sitting around a meeting table does not.  Yes, many working people will continue to work remotely after this is over but I also know many others who directly miss the creativity and shared problem-solving that you experience when you are in the same office as team members, colleagues and clients.

FaceTime and Skype are marvellous inventions to keep families who are separate in touch and see the faces of children and grandchildren but I long to be in the room with those grandchildren and be able to giggle with them and hug them again.  I have two friends who have recently become grandmothers and are aching to hold their new grandchildren.  Then there are other grandparents I know who simply can’t manage the technology and so miss out. And this is not to mention those having babies in these circumstances who may not be able to have husbands or partners with them. Nor the heart-breaking end of those dying in hospital or care homes without the comfort of a loving hand.

And it isn’t just relationships.  Other factors feed our minds and souls.  Theatres, movies, concerts are cancelled.  And so again, the technology comes up with brilliant methods to screen live performances of National Theatre plays, Met operas, classical and pop concerts.  It is marvellous … and yet it is just not the same as being there.

As Darwin pointed out, as a species we survive by adapting.  And adapting we are.  I thank God for the techie brains that can create and develop this amazing software that keeps us in touch and keeps us learning.  I also thank God that our brains can adapt with care, thought and compassion in this current situation as I see and experience an inspiring number of acts of kindness and consideration.  Under the surface of our courage there is fear, pain and longing and this, also, will be building patterns of neural circuitry. We are complex creatures stirred by thought, spirituality and emotion.  All can be a source of comfort.  So let’s embrace technology but at the same time remember that our human links to others are precious and essential to our wellbeing.

Just as our brains are now adapting to screen-based communication, we shall need to consciously reboot them back into face-to-face contact once this pandemic is over. And, just like if we don’t speak French for some time we get rusty, this may take more focused effort both for we adults and for our young.  But how great will that be!  Keep well.

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