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Brains Bad

Turns out humans weren't meant to be inside this much.

Screenshot from Saturday Night Live sketch, "Loco"
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From the department of Things I Could Have Guessed But Is Still Nice to Know: We are rapidly approaching a critical consensus that the pandemic has indeed fucked up everyone’s brains.

A new piece in The Atlantic today attempts to puzzle out why so many of us seem to be, well, losing it: Why we’re having a hard time remembering the mundane, textural details of pre-pandemic life; why we’re struggling to have linear thought progressions; why it feels like time moves at no measurable pace. Essentially, it’s because we’ve cleared our mental ship decks to make room for all the stress of surviving a pandemic:

To some degree, this is a natural adaptation. The sunniest optimist would point out that all this forgetting is evidence of the resilience of our species. Humans forget a great deal of what happens to us, and we tend to do it pretty quickly—after the first 24 hours or so. “Our brains are very good at learning different things and forgetting the things that are not a priority,” Tina Franklin, a neuroscientist at Georgia Tech, told me. As the pandemic has taught us new habits and made old ones obsolete, our brains have essentially put actions like taking the bus and going to restaurants in deep storage, and placed social distancing and coughing into our elbows near the front of the closet. When our habits change back, presumably so will our recall.

“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, told the Atlantic. No kidding! According to the data from the Census Bureau, the number of Americans reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety quadrupled between June 2019 and December 2020.

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The Atlantic story also reminded me of a recent New York Times piece—aptly titled, “Why Your Brain Feels Broken”—that feels apiece with the Brain Bad Canon. The Times post is more focused on how parents’ systems are being overloaded during the pandemic, but I found this little nugget interesting for all of us non-parents out there too:

It’s not just the multitasking that makes us feel muddled, though. It’s also the stress. Chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress, can lead to memory impairments in healthy adults, said Moïra Mikolajczak, a psychology professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, who studies parental burnout.

Sounds right!

I started noticing around late January, after we all came down from the high of The Coup, that I couldn’t find anyone in my life who wasn’t having a Bad Time. People are grouchy and bored and listless. What our lives before this felt and looked like seems so far away now, a speck in the distance fading into the horizon. As you also might have guessed, last summer and those fleeting months of tempered joy, ruined us. From The Atlantic again:

This is the fog of late pandemic, and it is brutal. In the spring, we joked about the Before Times, but they were still within reach, easily accessible in our shorter-term memories. 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.

This is all admittedly skewed toward the predominantly white, affluent professional class, people whose jobs allow them work from home and whose livelihoods are at a relatively lower risk of being completely upended by the pandemic. The communities of color already at higher risk of contracting COVID—especially in hot zones like New York—are feeling an even higher rate of mental health issues. The pandemic, as much as our white public intellectuals would have you believe, is not “the great equalizer,” an inherently cynical sentiment that only tacitly acknowledges the enormous inequality in this country that has been exacerbated by the pandemic: One Commonwealth Fund survey found that Latino and Black Americans are two and three times as likely to experience financial hardship during the pandemic.

This is not to say the mental anguish we’re all feeling isn’t real or that some people’s is more “valid”—that line of thinking is a trap set by liberals and Republicans to pit us all against each other. Just like everything else in America, we’re experiencing the trauma of the pandemic along racial and class lines. We just hear from the segment with the means and platform to tell us about theirs more often.

But now we’re at the beginning of the end, it seems, where we have to white-knuckle it until we can have our Suit Supply orgies or whatever. The Centers for Disease Control issued some crucial guidance today that feels like another major turning point in the pandemic: fully vaccinated people can be indoors together and the fully vaccinated are also in the clear to be inside with non-vaccinated people who are low-risk. Thirty-one million Americans (9.2% of the population) are fully vaccinated according to the CDC , and the Biden administration has already said there will be enough vaccines for everyone by the end of May, which is allegedly in two-and-a-half months??? Not checking this.

I leave you with this video about me (and you and everyone we know):