Reports say that almost a year of socialising and working online has changed the way our brains function.
The amount of change our brains has seen in this past year is far greater than any normal one-year period in our adult lives. We are absorbing new details almost daily, and learning how to navigate our lives under new conditions. And thanks to this, in some regards our brains are sharper than ever. On the other hand, there has been increased stress and anxiety which is not good for the brain.
One of the biggest changes we have faced is how most human interactions have moved online. With average screen-time having increased from 300 daily minutes to 600, we look at what this might mean for us in the short-term and ways we can counteract some of the side effects.
Forgetting things has been a common occurrence for most people in the last year. And although at first this could be put down to stress, now it is more likely to be down to our samey, screen-filled lives. Because we are often in the same room, on the same virtual plaform, there are fewer sensory associations to help us make new memories. The memory part of the brain, the hippocampus, struggles more to tag things as new memories, as it feels it’s seen this before.
To boost the memory, new activities are recommended – which you can then cement into your brain in by telling others about them. You could also try taking phone calls whilst on a walk so you are processing different scenery as you absorb information.
Lost for words
A specific part of memory, word finding, is one of the first brain functions to suffer when we are not firing on all cylinders. As many people have also had fewer personal interactions in the last year, this has probably made matters worse for making the most of our vocabularies.
To keep on top of your word recall, try playing word association games with your family or play A-Z games where you challenge yourself to think of a related word for each letter.
No water cooler moments
Trivial conversations may seem just that – trivial – but in their absence we can see their importance. As zoom conversations are often more formal, we are less like to make small-talk, and as no one has much news to share there is less to discuss anyway. But this can be a problem: a casual chat can serve as a screen break, time to reflect on day-to-day life, a reminder of jobs we need to do, or just a way of connecting with others.
Try to revive the art trivial conversation by all recounting your day, however uneventful it may have been, over the family dinner, or by keeping a journal.
Short attention spans
Thanks to increasing use of technology, attention spans have reportedly been in decline for a while. Prior to 2020, the average attention span was just three to six minutes long, and it is estimated that in the past year have become even shorter. The ever-updating and immediately available world of social media is likely to blame, and when working from home we are more able to interrupt what we are doing and look at our phones even more regularly.
To increase our attention spans try committing to 15-minute blocks of work, with the mobile phone out of reach, and short screen breaks between each block. When this becomes more comfortable, try increasing slowly to 30-minute blocks and over time your attentiveness will improve.
Disrupted sleep patterns
Sleep is vital for brain power, memory function and concentration. Unhelpfully however, sleep cycles have been a casualty of the last year for many reasons. Initially stress broke existing sleep habits, then with reduced exercise, and unusual sleeping patterns the internal clock which we need for good sleep stops working so well.
The body’s circadian rhythms are set by early morning daylight creating melatonin. As people venture outdoors less, and are faced with blue light from screens all day long, a regular night’s sleep becomes more difficult.
To counter this, stick to the same bedtime and wake up time each day. Once awake, get straight out of bed, and aim to get a good dose of morning light. If at all possible, reduce evening screen time, and aim for no screens at all in the hour before bed. A good night’s sleep can do wonders to boost that brain power.