How to keep your brain healthy during lockdown

Acute isolation causes social craving – similar to hunger

Doug Hassebroek eats breakfast while on a video conference call working from home during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S., April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
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Now that hundreds of millions of people around the world have been home for more than a month now, many are missing their daily social interactions. Losing the benefits of interacting with others is one of the tolls of social distancing.

Early on in the Covid-19 crisis, a number of social, behavioural and brain scientists, including myself, raised their voices in mainstream and social media for public health authorities to stop using the term “social distancing”.

After a while, even the World Health Organisation decided to change their recommendation to "physical distancing".

One could argue that, when so many people die because of the pandemic, semantics are not a priority. It is because so many are dying that words matter even more.

First, asking people to socially distance from others is unclear and confusing. And in times of crisis, public health messaging must be crisp and unambiguous. Hence asking people to stay at home and to keep two metres of physical distance in public is a much more efficient way to communicate. People know what they have to do. There is less room for interpreting the recommendation.

You are not alone

With several million isolated in their homes, we must do our best to maintain social closeness despite the physical distance – because the virus is not just biological; it is also psychological.

And while the world has changed, our brains have not. Social isolation, either perceived or real, has significant negative effects on our psychological, hormonal, behavioural and brain functioning.

These include physical and mental fatigue, irregular sleep patterns, increased anxiety and hostility towards others that can lead to social withdrawal, as indicated in the Annual Review of Psychology back in 2015.

Do not just write that you will eat at noon and at 7PM every day. Write down the menu of each meal so you can visualise it

Four weeks ago, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology shared the results of a study where they used neurotechnologies to measure the brain activity of two groups of people. For 10 hours, one group was forced to fast, while the other was socially isolated. After that, they reported feeling lonely and craving food, respectively.

Their results support "the intuitive idea that acute isolation causes social craving, similar to hunger". No wonder we tend to pay the fridge more visits than usual when under lockdown.

Four ways to ward off negativity

In the coronavirus version of the movie Groundhog Day that people under lockdown experience these days, the same day is indeed repeated over and over but without the possibility to physically and socially interact with the world.

We therefore need to fight the negative patterns we can easily fall into. Easier said than done, right?

Let me give you a few tips to designing and sticking to a routine that structures your days and helps regain control to help fight some of the negative effects of being physically distant from others.

Four words are key to fight isolation: planning, visualising, rewarding and socialising.

Plan it all, write everything down

First, plan everything if you haven't already been doing so. Your work, physical activities, meals, online social interactions, entertainment and sleep.

Also plan things like taking a shower and dressing up. In order to achieve efficiency and diversity in your structuring routine, plan for the week or the month on a sheet of paper or on a screen big enough for you to be able to read the details.

Do not just write that you will eat at noon and at 7PM every day. Write down the menu of each meal so you can visualise it. Plan who you invite to join you online over dinner.

This way your brain will quickly spot poorly planned meals and social interactions that are repetitive and not varied enough.

If your brain sees "steak kebabs with Ken" written multiple times on the planning, it will tend to make you add other dishes and guests in between and invite other folks to chat over a meal.

Ditto for physical activities, social interactions or entertainment intended to fill your free time. This visualising nudge from behavioural sciences has proven very efficient on many fronts.

Learn something, reward yourself 

And if you feel like repeatedly snacking, distract your mind with another task: why not do a push up, a little dance, or if your physical condition doesn’t allow it, learn a new word in a foreign language before you eat.

Add a push up, a minute of dance, and an extra word every time before each meal. You will create micro-habits that are good for your brain and physical health. Note that this reward system works with everything you do often, like watching a TV show, for example.

It is important for brain health to learn something new. Why not use the extra time not spent in commuting in this way?

There are so many online tutorials that you will easily find something that suits you. Be mindful though to balance new skills that are easy to acquire with others that take longer.

Build micro habits

Quick and easy wins trigger the reward system in our brains that makes us feel good. Similarly, as we need to build micro-habits, we also need micro-rewards associated with easy-wins.

We need to balance between learning to flip a crepe and becoming a machine learning guru.

Yet, regardless of the goal, small or big, never forget to celebrate your achievement. Do that jig, sing, anything you want, but do it. And tell your friends about it.

And if you feel like taking days off in your routine, that is great too. Taking care of oneself also means knowing when to stop and relax.

Watching the world fall apart is a lonely feeling. It is what many in their homes feel right now.

Which is why it is so important not to let go of individual goals and social closeness despite the physical distance.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ