Has our brain changed a year after the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic?

Has our brain changed a year after the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic?
Has our brain changed a year after the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic?

Due to the pandemic, people's mental health is likely to worsen. But, on the other hand, a pandemic can push humanity to reassess values, experts say. We have the opportunity to make unprecedented changes, transforming both society and the way of life of each individual.

When England faced the bubonic plague in the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton was forced to flee Cambridge, where he studied, to take care of his parental home in Lincolnshire. The Newton family was by no means poor; they owned a large garden where fruit trees were pleasing to the eye. But in those dashing times, which crossed out all the usual way of life, no social upheavals could distract Newton from scientific reflections. That is why it was in such an environment that only one falling apple was so strongly remembered by Newton, in contrast to the falls of all the other apples combined that he had ever seen. It turns out that the law of gravitation turned out to be a kind of gift from the plague. So how is the current pandemic affecting people?

Differently. In general, this issue worries us all. Someone, for example, fell ill, someone moved, someone lost a loved one or a job, someone got, say, a kitten or got divorced, someone succumbed to gluttony or, conversely, began to play more sports, and who I started to shower longer every morning or wear the same clothes every day - in short, the pandemic has changed people's behavior. But how? When we get the answers to all these questions, the time will surely come when we will have to summarize - and, perhaps, there, in the column "expenses" we will see something more than gray hair, a plump figure and a kitten? (True, the kitten is still useful.) So what psychological impact has the pandemic had on our way of life? Will she change him radically?

“People talk about getting back to normal, but I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly,” says Frank Snowden, a historical researcher at Yale University, who wrote Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to our time"). Frank Snowden has been studying pandemics for forty years. And last spring, his life's work suddenly became more relevant than ever - Frank's phone was torn from calls: people wanted to know if historical science could shed light on covid-19? He contracted the coronavirus.

Frank Snowden believes that covid-19 is not an accident. As the scientist noted, all pandemics “strike society at the most vulnerable point; and these vulnerabilities arise as a result of the relationships that a person has built between himself and the environment, other types of biological beings, as well as as a result of relationships built between people themselves. " Each pandemic has its own characteristics, and the current one also affects mental well-being, which makes it somewhat reminiscent of the bubonic plague. Frank Snowden notes that after the first Covid-19 pandemic, there is a second - a "psychological pandemic".

Aoife O'Donovan, professor of psychiatry at the Weill Institute of Neuroscience at the University of California, who specializes in trauma, agrees. “We are dealing with many levels of uncertainty,” says O'Donovan. “Some really terrible things have happened recently. And with all these horrors many other people still have to face, and we do not know who it expects, when and how. All this really requires cognitive and physiological costs."

According to O'Donovan, the whole body is exposed to a psycho-traumatic effect, because in the case when a person perceives any threat - be it abstract or real - he has a biological response to stress. Cortisol leads to the production of glucose. The immune system responds, irritability increases, which affects the brain, and the person eventually becomes more susceptible to threats and less sensitive to positive influences.

In practice, this means that the immune system is able to activate immediately after a person, for example, hears someone coughing, sees a passer-by in a protective medical mask, or just sees a peculiar color shade, which is in Pantone's color scheme. would most likely give the name Surgical Blue. Moreover, the immune system can be triggered even after a person suddenly saw a bystander walking without a protective mask, or even, as O'Donovan discovered, after a person sees an image of someone unmasked during a Zoom session. In addition, as O'Donovan notes, do not forget about all kinds of government regulations, which tend to be widespread and often change - for this reason, the person also often has to make decisions, which only increases his uncertainty.

In addition, the feeling of insecurity increases after a person suddenly learns about the specific consequences of covid-19. According to Frank Snowden, this disease turned out to be "not at all as simple as it seemed at first" - covid-19 resembles a werewolf: in some cases, this disease resembles a respiratory disease, in other cases - gastrointestinal, in the third case, this disease is generally capable cause disturbances of consciousness and cognitive impairment; some people with this disease show many symptoms, while many others are asymptomatic. Most of us generally cannot know for sure whether we have become infected or not. And ignorance gives rise to an obsessive desire to seek out symptoms in oneself. However, the analysis of symptomatology, on the contrary, raises more questions than dispels fears; so, for example: how to distinguish fatigue from overwork? What is the difference between a regular cough and a "continuous" cough?

… Ife O'Donovan sighs - all the same, you feel tired. Now is a very busy time for those scientists who are engaged in the study of such phenomena as threat and danger, so at present Ife has completely and completely gone into work. In her opinion, the response of the human body to a state of uncertainty is "excellent" - this is when it comes to a person's ability to mobilize to fight a threat. But O'Donovan is not happy with the fact that the human body, alas, is poorly adapted to the effects of frequent and prolonged threats. “If a person is in constant combat readiness, then this condition can harm the body in the long term: as a result, the biological aging of the body accelerates and the risk of age-related diseases increases,” explains Ife O'Donovan.

In everyday life, as a person tries to adapt to a crisis situation in the absence of familiar landmarks and attachments (school, family, friends, routine and habits), uncertainty manifests itself in completely different ways. As a result, we see that habitual behavioral rhythms are distorted (time spent alone and in the company of other people, commuting to work, and even sending mail).

A person develops alienation until he has developed a new behavioral norm. Even a simple question "how are you?" implies many hidden implications (for example, "are you contagious?"), and, as a rule, you will not be given a direct answer to it; most likely, a super-vigilant citizen will tell about some suspiciously high temperature, which, they say, he had back in February.

Emotionist Thomas Dixon of Queen Mary University of London even stated that when the pandemic broke out, he stopped opening emails that started with the phrase "I hope this letter finds you in good health."

These, in the words of the therapist Philippa Perry, traditional "social dancing" (for example, finding a place in a cafe or bus) has not disappeared, taking with it the opportunity to experience a sense of community with others; they were replaced by, so to speak, "dances of rejection." Perry thinks this may be why she missed the queues at Pret a Manger. “We all had to wait in line to pay for the sandwiches we ordered. And it all reminded me of a kind of collective event, even if I was not familiar with the rest of the people in line."

Conversely, during a pandemic, the queues turned into something unnatural; now they rather resemble a multitude of creatures in the correct order, plotting their route according to a movement pattern. People have to face rejection, for example, when a passerby bypasses you on the side of the road in order to maintain a distance, or when a delivery courier immediately runs away in response to a traditional greeting, as soon as he notices you at the door. At the same time, according to Philip Perry, rational arguments explaining to us the reasons why one person avoids another, alas, is not reassuring. And the feeling of my own rejection remains.

The English word "contangion" comes from a combination of the Latin prefix "from behind" and the root "touch", so it is not surprising that social contacts began to be demonized during the pandemic. But what will it cost us? Neuroscientists Francis McGlone and Merle Fairhurst study nerve fibers called C-tactile afferents, which are concentrated in hard-to-reach areas of the body, such as the back and shoulders. They combine social contacts into a complex reward system, so when a person is stroked, touched, hugged or patted, at that very moment, oxytocin is released in the body, the heart rate decreases, and the production of cortisone is suppressed. “This is a subtle way that one person can maintain a close relationship with another,” explains Francis McGlone.

However, McGlone worries: "Everywhere we have to observe changes in human behavior during a pandemic, and nerve fibers constantly send us signals - touch, touch, touch!" While some people - especially those who are isolated with small children - have the opportunity to feel more contact on themselves, others are completely deprived of this opportunity. Merle Fairhurst analyzed data collected with Francis McGlone in a large-scale survey they have been conducting jointly since May this year, and found that young people are most likely to be negatively affected by the loss of tactile contact. “Age is an important factor in loneliness and depression,” says Fairhurst. The disappearance of connections between individuals, which are provided with the help of tactile contacts, creates "conditions conducive to depression - and this is depression, loss of strength, lethargy."

“A person becomes nothing,” says Philip Perry. Protective masks by and large make us all faceless. Hand sanitizer is essentially a physical screen. Merle Fairhurst sees in him a "barrier", that is, it is "as if the person did not speak a foreign language at all." And Philip Perry is not the only one who focuses on "barriers in the form of clothes that turn a person into nothing" - pajamas and tracksuits. Somehow, the regular wearing of clothes makes a person perceive any clothes in general as a metaphor for fatigue. Clothes seem to increase our fatigue and make it heavier.

The blow to the cultural sphere turned out to be hard, it only increased the feeling of dehumanization.Professor Eric Clarke of Wadham College, Oxford, who does research in the psychology of music, directed the singing on one of the dead-end streets during the first quarantine - it "felt like a kind of lifeline"; but Clark still lacked the usual musical events - there was not enough music in the streets and squares. “I feel the destruction and erosion of my aesthetic self,” says Clarke. “When I make music, the world around me recedes further and further into the background.” But for several months now, we have not heard any music on city streets, no applause for street musicians. Now "we are all separated from the outside world, like rice grains in an instant plastic bag."

During the covid-19 pandemic, nothing threw our peace of mind more than facing death. The number of deaths is now growing at an alarming rate. But even before their death, these unfortunates are, as it were, sentenced to isolation. “They're literally depersonalizing,” says Frank Snowden, who lost his sister during the pandemic. “I didn’t see her, and she was cut off from her family… The pandemic is breaking ties and separating people from each other.”

Due to the pandemic, people for a short time could feel as if they really began to resemble those notorious grains of rice in plastic bags, as mentioned above by Professor Eric Clark. The same can be said for those who posted a video on YouTube about homemade plastic curtains with special sealed sleeves through which you can hug your loved ones and not get infected. “The works dealing with natural disasters talk about the formation of an altruistic community in which a sense of common destiny is born among all its members,” comments Professor John Drury of the University of Sussex, who specializes in crowd psychology. "But it still needs to be proved."

Now, in addition to depersonalization, a heightened sense of individualism appears - this is a complex combination of feelings, thanks to which a person, acquiring more and more of the individual, loses the personal.

Individualism is also increasingly evident at the international and political levels; here we can recall, for example, the speech of Donald Trump (Donald Trump) with the proposal to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization. Trump referred to covid-19 as "Wuhan virus" or "kung flu"; it felt both racism and fear of another person, which was probably caused by the pandemic. In the UK, Germany, the United States and elsewhere, there has been an increase in racially motivated hate crimes against members of some Asian communities.

All that remains is to resort to compensatory behavior - maybe you've already done it. Otherwise, insufficient compensatory capacity can only lengthen the "second pandemic", that is, the psychological consequences of the first, coronavirus pandemic. For example, in Scotland, substance abuse mortality has already risen by a third; [Charity] British Liver Trust Reports 500% Increase in Hotline Calls; the number of cases of domestic violence has risen sharply around the world.

But even the smallest behavioral changes that carry a positive charge can lead to strong positive effects. For example, Merle Fairhurst began to use perfume more often and wash her hair longer - thus, according to her, there is a "direct activation" of the C-tactile afferent nerves. According to research conducted by Fairhurst, "the one who helps other people more does not feel completely alone."Frank Snowden was able to survive in isolation thanks in part to a group of his high school friends who held Zoom sessions; they now appear online every week, despite not getting together for 56 years. Thomas Dixon was painting with his children. John Drury, a "very practical man" who always went outside his home only when necessary, now goes outside "to strengthen emotional and mental well-being."

“Humanity has faced pandemics in the past, but we survived,” said Merle Fairhurst. To adapt is to survive. Noticing signs of adaptation, albeit barely noticeable, means respecting and appreciating a person.

Still, will the pandemic change us in the long term?

San Francisco-based professor Ife O'Donovan, who has studied post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years, believes that people are likely to experience PTSD again after covid-19. In addition, due to covid-19, the criteria for diagnosing PTSD will be revised. Between 20% and 30% of patients admitted to intensive care units subsequently suffer from PTSD; But what can we say about those who fear for their lives in places that are not at all safe at the present time, such as, for example, a grocery store and public transport! Could PTSD be triggered by an ordinary passerby who walks next to you, coughs and cannot clear his throat? Doctors know of cases when in 2003 patients were cured of a respiratory viral disease (SARS), but after that they had to undergo treatment for post-traumatic stress for more than ten years. “We have a lot of work,” sums up Ife O'Donovan.

In addition, there is a possibility that fears of covid-19 will persist beyond the pandemic itself. On the one hand, John Drury believes that people can easily learn how to behave in a crowd again. But how long will they be afraid of the crowd - that's the problem! Drury notes that after the London bombings in 2005, the level of terrorist threat decreased, and people began to travel again. But in the summer of 2020, when the British government urged everyone to return to their offices for their jobs, many people resisted. "It seemed to them … that the danger has not disappeared anywhere." The impact of the pandemic will depend on how protected people feel. Moreover, the more people are diagnosed with "systemic inflammation" due to the activation of their biological response to stressors, the more sensitive they will be to perceived social threats.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in terms of its emotional consequences, according to the historian of emotions Thomas Dixon, the current pandemic is "akin to a world war." “I believe we are in for a global recession. We will have to go through suffering, inequality and poverty. A pandemic is a global event that is accompanied by a significant emotional shake-up, and it seems to me that in times of turmoil, the range of emotional responses of people changes,”says Thomas Dixon. He believes that after the pandemic and its complications, people will develop "a more stable and possibly more restrained and less emotional demeanor."

Frank Snowden adds: “Every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps as a result of [the pandemic], we will completely transform our health care system so that it pays due attention not only to the physical, but also to the mental health of citizens. It is likely that [the pandemic] will help us rethink the role of medicine in general.”

And, quite possibly, the pandemic will give us the opportunity to look at the most ordinary things in a new way, as it was once in the past - in the garden where Newton watched the apple. It is difficult to imagine that workers could work as before after vaccination.Many cities are changing their traffic patterns and do not allow the use of cars. Carlos Moreno's concept of “a city within 15 minutes accessibility” is almost constantly discussed on the air everywhere - in the vast space from Paris to Buenos Aires. At the end of the 19th century, telephones were installed in hospitals in England so that patients suffering from scarlet fever could communicate more with their relatives; and this innovation stuck. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, FaceTime and Zoom programs began to play the role of an outlet - they offered a remote communication channel (however, if some meetings are still held as usual, then here we will have to re-learn how to communicate, because we will not be able to use Zoom's tips).

“The current pandemic can be viewed as a driving force for change,” says Alexandre White of Johns Hopkins University. White advocated the adoption of a universal health care law in the United States, “to not only improve the quality of care for patients regardless of their social background, but primarily to minimize economic and social inequalities, as well as inequalities in access to medicine. And there are conditions for all this."

We must understand that in times of a pandemic, new opportunities also open up before us - and this is the main thing. Yes, difficulties and losses are inevitable. But, at the same time, we have the opportunity to make unprecedented changes, transforming not only society, but also the lifestyle and habits of each individual. For several months each of us had to be alone with ourselves for some time. Now we will appreciate even more those simple things that we did not appreciate before, and rejoice in the most ordinary little things that helped us get through difficult times - even if it tastes like a fresh apple. What if all this will help us to understand ourselves?

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