Embracing neuroplasticity in a pandemic.
We’ve all laughed about going crazy from isolation. “My last braincell,” “smooth brain,” “brain worms,” etc., popped up a lot. As ever, humor copes with fear.
Legitimate fears, in a year of lockdown limbo.
Early on in the pandemic — mindlessly playing a Nintendo Switch through government announcements of stricter lockdowns, more death — I was worried about regressing to a teenager. Getting dumber, forgetting words, how to socialize, losing independence as a young adult, or having my mental well-being eroded in lockdown.
Instead, my brain genuinely feels more peaceful in December 2020 than in December 2019. I know — I’m surprised too.
It didn’t happen by magic. There is no magical immunity to being affected by COVID-19 this year.
Just knowledge, a slow adjustment process, and effort.
Most of all, effort around answering one question:
What habits can we establish to beat the mental drain of a pandemic and still grow as people?
If a Psychology degree doesn’t come in handy when experiencing a globe-wide traumatic event: when would it, right?
Here are some simple, condensed insights from Psychology & Neuroscience to answer that question. They’ve reassured me that my brain isn’t turning into a puddle and helped me like mental floss. I hope they can do the same for you.
No more brain worms.
1. Any time you learn a skill, you change your brain
Neuroplasticity has been an exciting research area over the past decade.
Our early life is a time of rapid synaptic pruning and growth: but this period extends longer than previously thought. Our brain is still pruning synaptic connections well into our late 20s, associated with an enhanced ability to learn.
Most importantly, the brain never reaches a point where it is “set” and cannot change. You’re both the clay and the sculptor.
Neuroplasticity refers to how the brain adapts, making new connections between neurons. If we compare the brain to a circuit board: it’s a gooey one that continually rewires itself in response to its environment and to speed up what it repeatedly does over time.
It’s easy to underestimate just how cool and literal this is.
- String musicians have greater sensitivity to sensation in their fingers after hours of practice using them.
- Taxi drivers have larger hippocampi, associated with spatial navigation, than non-taxi drivers. The longer they’ve been driving, the stronger this effect.
- Simple conscious awareness of our own brainwave activity and practice at altering it, via neurofeedback, improves symptoms of ADHD and performance in the creative arts.
Actions you take — whatever they are — will get easier to take over time. This “feeling” of ease comes in part from myelin, the fatty covering that protects neural connections, thickening around ones associated with that utilized skill. Myelination speeds up the communication between two neurons by a factor of 300x.
When learning a new skill, we feel this myelination effect firsthand. Take learning to drive.
At first, everything is confusing, overwhelming, and stress-inducing. Months later, you find yourself automatically reaching in the right places: even able to safely daydream while driving.
Driving itself didn’t get magically easier; your brain just insulated more circuitry to do it.
Takeaway: The brain isn’t static and is capable of change across the whole lifespan. Learning new skills physically changes how your brain is wired. Change is hard at first. Thanks to unmyelinated axons, it’s supposed to be. Notice how it gets easier.
2. Rest isn’t lazy — it’s vital for a healthy brain
In our modern culture of capitalism and hustle, rest gets a bad name.
Until this year, I drank the Kool-Aid. I thought the best way to learn was to stare at the same material for hours, even if I was tired and it wasn’t going in. Wanting to get up to stretch my legs for a bit was “weak” or “lazy.”
This cultural attitude goes against scientific fact.
- Rests give our brains the chance to consolidate information. The Pomodoro Method (25 minutes work / 5 minutes rest) is useful for the regular mini-breaks the brain needs to function well and establishing clear work/rest boundaries.
- A good night’s sleep is crucial to learning and working well. Sleep clears toxic byproducts from our brain that interfere with mood and thought. Pulling an all-nighter isn’t working hard: it’s self-sabotage.
- Our most creative ideas arise from moments of rest. Disjointed concepts and ideas combine in the background while we relax. This is called the incubation stage, and it’s behind the eureka effect.
In short: resting makes us not only happier but more productive and capable.
The key to strengthening our brains isn’t resting less, which would be damaging and counterproductive. I think it’s changing our attitude around what rest is.
Our modern habits of scrolling social media and texting are not restful at all. Reading this article isn’t down-time, either. You’re focusing on learning.
Instead, look at walks, long showers, meditations, and even simply staring out of the window or closing your eyes as true rest.
Takeaway: Erase the guilt around downtime because it’s a necessary good for you and your growth. Make sure your rest time is actually restful.
3. Body + mind are interdependent. Look after both
Increasingly, research shows that healthy brain functioning depends on how well we treat our whole body.
The stereotypical juxtaposition between a skinny nerd / dumb gym buff is overrated.
- Exercise goes beyond endorphins. Anecdotal reports of CEOs reading and exercising regularly aren’t coincidental whims: they’re solid habits for clear-headed leadership — just three resistance-based workouts per week boost memory and cognitive performance.
- Gut-brain axis. We’re increasingly aware of the importance of gut bacteria in regulating mood. Remarkably, probiotics buffered against depressive symptoms in mice, and depression in humans often has inflammatory symptoms.
- Different foods, sleep cycles, and mealtimes all affect your mood. For example, I’m aware of my brain’s dependence on sugar. If I cold turkey sugar for over 36 hours, brain fog and a persistent headache wash me out: I can’t work. If you’re fond of coffee, you’ll feel the same with caffeine. You can’t duck biology.
- Awareness of how your body affects your brain is the first step to reclaiming control over both. Get curious about why you feel the way that you do right now — how did you sleep? What did you eat before you felt sickly earlier? Are you feeling calmer and realize it was the walk at the park that did it? Practice exploring the whys, and you’ll have a more compassionate relationship with how you treat yourself.
Our ability to learn or work on a given day depends on much more than willpower: what we’ve eaten, what time we ate, how we slept, and if we exercised all play a part.
An excellent read on just how intertwined body and brain are, especially in the case of trauma, is the bestseller The Body Keeps The Score.
Takeaway: If you want to stay mentally sharp, stay physically sharp. By treating your body right, you give your brain the best fighting chance.
4. Exercise + enriched environment → change faster
An enriched environment is key to growing as a person and as an intellect. Existing in an enriched environment has been linked to faster recovery from strokes and disease, overcoming drug addiction, and aging better.
What is an “enriched environment”? It’s about mental stimulation.
You might live in a space with a piano, someone to talk to, lots of books, or… bare walls.
An environment of possibilities speeds up brain growth on a physical level. Wherever we start as children, we owe it to ourselves to make the positive changes to our space we can now.
Here are some simple hacks for enriching our own environment:
- Learn a musical instrument. There are solid benefits to picking up an instrument upon cognition, verbal memory, decision-making, and more: even controlling for other factors, like household income. Plus, it’s really fun! I won’t even say, Don’t be the guy who plays Wonderwall at the party. It’s a pandemic, mate. Play whatever you want.
- Hang around people you can (truly) talk to. What do you want to know more about? Films, blockchain, philosophy, football, entrepreneurship, hamsters, the future? Surround yourself with people you have brain-tingling conversations with. When this seems impossible: if you can dream it, there’s a podcast on it. Listen.
- Buy/lend books. Libraries are a modern miracle for enriching your own environment, free of charge. If you’re missing a nearby one: reach out to your pals, and see what you can swap or borrow. You’d be surprised.
- Find or make a green space. If you have a garden or nearby park, this is easy. Even in winter, bundling up for a brisk walk into your day is a simple feel-good. Pay attention to sights, sounds, smells, passers-by. Indoor shrubbery is good too. Here’s a list of hard-to-kill houseplants if your green thumb is falling off.
Takeaway: Hamsters suffer if kept in bare cages without toys — so do humans! Add interactivity to your environment to nourish your brain. Key candidates: an instrument, books, conversation (even podcasted), greenery.
Even in a pandemic (and continued #lockdownpurgatory from my area of the U.K), we can protect and improve our mental health. The half-joked of “brain rot” feeling can be overcome.
- Any time you learn a skill, you change your brain. Neuroplasticity isn’t a pipedream: it’s a foundational law. Stop shying away from trying new things because they feel hard at first when that’s how it works. There is no age limit to learning.
- Rest isn’t lazy — it’s vital for a healthy brain. Sleep, meditation, simply staring out a window, daydreaming, or resting your eyes, are all good and necessary activities: not character flaws.
- Body & mind are interdependent. Look after your gut! Physical exercise > crosswords.
- Enrich your environment, enrich your mind. Music, podcasts, libraries, greenery, and anything else you can think of. A goldfish grows as big as the tank it’s in: the same can be said of a mind.
Even without the usual coming-of-age milestones right now, there are lots of ways to change. We are our own clay.
With a new year on the horizon, that’s freedom worth embracing.