Opinion | The importance of nurturing your brain during the pandemic

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

My brain feels like mush. My 50-minute Zoom lectures feel hours long. Writing one page takes me three times as long as it used to. The walk from my bed to my desk to my couch is the only exercise I’m getting — I bet my Apple Watch thinks I’m dead.

The most exhilarating thing I felt capable of this week was making homemade focaccia bread with my roommate. We joke that we feel trapped in the minds of a 75-year-old retired couple. Some way to spend your final years of college, eh?

I’m not the only one feeling that their brains are letting them down, according to UC Irvine neuroscientist Mike Yassa.

“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” Yassa said. “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.”

In other words, prolonged social distancing is our brains’ worst case scenario. While the pandemic is hopefully nearing its 11th hour due to mass vaccination, it seems our abilities to focus, remember and create have been altered indefinitely. It’s not your fault if your brain has turned to soup, but by nurturing our brains through this traumatic time, we can get a head start in returning to some semblance of normalcy.

A psychological theory called Cognitive Load Theory offers a clear explanation of why the pandemic has been so catastrophic to our mental capacity. According to Christian Jarrett, psychologist and contributor for the BBC, this theory basically asserts that our brains are complex information processing systems. In foreign situations, we process this information through our “working memory,” or the part of our brain that extrapolates from what we already know. The more unfamiliar a problem, the more we rely on our working memory. But when dealing with issues that frequently appear in our routine, we can activate our long-term memory and go on “auto-pilot.”

“What’s happening now is that disruptions to life caused by the pandemic are forcing you to draw on your limited working memory capacity more often, at a time when — if you’re more stressed and your anxiety levels are raised, or you’re juggling multiple tasks and commitments — you have diminished working memory capacity,” Jarrett said. “It’s the worst of both worlds, and another reason why you’re feeling mentally drained.”

Basically, we’re increasingly reliant on a part of a brain that is already being hindered by the state of the world. Virtual lectures and asynchronous assignments still feel quite foreign, so I’m forced to work from my working memory, which is strained from a full year of doom scrolling and inaction.

The Atlantic’s Ellen Cushing writes about another side effect of the pandemic, which she calls the “Winter of Forgetting.” She writes of her inability to remember what going out on the weekend feels like, about reaching for the names of restaurants she used to visit daily or forgetting how tall her boss is.

“In the spring, we joked about the Before Times, but they were still within reach, easily accessible in our shorter-term memories,” Cushing said. “In the summer and fall, with restrictions loosening and temperatures rising, we were able to replicate some of what life used to be like, at least in an adulterated form: outdoor drinks, a day at the beach. But now, in the cold, dark, featureless middle of our pandemic winter, we can neither remember what life was like before nor imagine what it’ll be like after.”

Last week we saw the first signs of this period of the pandemic coming to a close. With temperatures reaching 70 degrees in Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania nearing the start of its second phase of vaccinations, we’ll soon be able to safely gather in small groups. But there’s no data suggesting how our brains will recover from this season of forgetting.

We know that a lack of socialization, anxiety and depression can impact our short- and long-term memory. But luckily, we also know that humans tend to forget things quickly as a means to adapt. While this has been a huge factor in the awfulness of the pandemic, it may also be what helps us rise from it. If we can forget the “Before Times,” maybe we can forget “These Uncertain Times” once they’ve reached their conclusion. The key to dealing with our mushy brains is not seeking to “fix” them now, but nurturing them so they can bounce back most effectively when this hellscape comes to an end.

I know that establishing a routine is easier said than done, but working to implement a very loose plan for your days can lighten the load on your mental capacity. It can be as easy as committing to wake up by 9 or 10 every morning, or setting a fixed skincare regimen to complete before starting your day. Or maybe you can just commit to getting dressed in real pants every morning.

Do your best to cut out the doom scrolling — by now, it’s clear that if something important happens, you’ll hear about it. Removing specific stressors and anxiety triggers — like deleting Twitter or unfollowing that COVID case tracker account — can, too, allow your working memory to operate more effectively.

Get out of the house — safely. Pitt has opened many reduced-capacity study spaces that you can use to break up the monotony of your day and have some work-life separation. You can even reserve a private room in Hillman Library to block out specific times to be productive.

I told a friend I was writing this column about how my body felt uninhabitable and my brain felt incapacitated. He echoed the sentiment, saying his brain felt “unmotivated and lazy.” Perhaps the scariest part of this pandemic-induced mental block is the way it so clearly spirals into negative self-talk. “My brain feels lazy” becomes “I feel lazy,” and eventually, “I am lazy.”

The most important way to preserve ourselves for the “After Times” — that will come — is recognizing that we are not in control. We feel lazy because our brains are not hardwired to operate this way. We need to stop pressuring ourselves to become our own mind’s electricians and re-wire ourselves. Rather, let’s meet our brains where they are.

It sometimes feels like we’re caught between a rock and a hard place — either stick to our current routines of social distancing and watch our mental capacity rapidly decline, or pull a Texas and risk millions of lives by recklessly ignoring protections.

And while it may feel that way, we don’t have to choose one or the other — although, I hope we’d all opt for the former. By taking the time to nurture our brains, we can weather the storm and emerge into normalcy when the time comes.

I went to the library last week for the first time since March 2020. I hadn’t written anything in more than a month and the deadlines for four midterm papers were approaching rapidly. Focus felt impossible, and I was desperate for a retreat.

Instantly, as I excitedly left the house to do something other than visit Trader Joe’s, my shoulders felt lighter, my mind less foggy, my heart a little happier. The fluorescent lights and neon green walls — which had previously sent a shiver down my spine — sparked a smile. It made me feel human again.

How bizarre that the things that once filled us with dread — withering away on an old library chair until 2 a.m. — are the things keeping me going. They’re pockets of normalcy in a strikingly un-normal world, something I didn’t know I needed until I was there. These semblances of normalcy are keeping my brain in a slightly less soupy state — maybe a chilli or gazpacho — until my focus is revived, my sanity is fully felt and I can finally remember.

Julia writes about social issues and politics. Write to Julia at [email protected].