Take a moment to ask yourself: How has your brain been during the pandemic? Have you felt grief or depression? Have you been quick to anger in close quarters with your family? Do you feel anxious, a sense of doom that hangs over you or perhaps even temporarily paralyzes you? Can you describe your fear? Your stress?
You may have heard that being stressed can actually make you more suspeptible to the virus, should it make its way into your system. But even if you never catch the virus, the stress itself can make you ill in other ways.
In “The Pandemic Brain,” a new series of articles within his “Brain Yapping” column, neuroscientist Dean Burnett (author of Idiot Brain and Happy Brain) addresses one of the more overlooked problems with not having enough COVID-19 tests available. Getting tests not only helps prevent the spread of the disease and the treatment of those who are sick, it also creates certainty in the brain. Right now, many people, whether they are showing symptoms or not, don’t know whether they are infected, and the brain, Burnett says, is not equipped to deal very well with uncertainty. He writes,
“We have no defence against such things, and no way to ‘get rid’ of them. They just remain lodged in our psyche, stimulating the powerful and delicate threat-detecting processes of our brains, and causing persistent low-level activity in the sympathetic nervous system, aka stress. … The thing is, stress causes countless health problems, both mental and physical. So even if the people who want testing don’t have Coronavirus and aren’t ill, the lack of testing, or a conclusive answer, could make them ill.”
So your greatest protection is finding the best way to manage your stress, specific to the way you know your brain works. Maybe you’re someone who is calmed down by having all of the facts. In that case, study up on the disease. Become the expert. Or perhaps you’re the opposite. Maybe it’s better for your mental health to turn off the news and dive into a project or a good book. Or maybe you’re the sort who needs to stay in constant contact with friends over the phone or Zoom. Or someone who needs a hot bath every night, or meditation, or exercise, or a healthier diet. All of these things can have an impact on emotions and stress levels, but every method works differently for different people, so figure out what works for you.
If any of this intrigues you, you may be interested in learning more about how the brain works with these five new or upcoming books on brains.
*Please note that it is extremely important that you support your local independent bookstore right now. Many of them are suffering from being closed during the pandemic. You can check if your local bookstore is shipping by visiting their website or finding them on IndieBound.org. In each post during the pandemic, I’ll be linking to some stores that are still shipping, last I heard.
The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience by Matthew Cobb
In The Idea of the Brain, scientist and historian Matthew Cobb traces how our conception of the brain has evolved over the centuries. Although it might seem to be a story of ever-increasing knowledge of biology, Cobb shows how our ideas about the brain have been shaped by each era’s most significant technologies. Today we might think the brain is like a supercomputer. In the past, it has been compared to a telegraph, a telephone exchange, or some kind of hydraulic system. What will we think the brain is like tomorrow, when new technology arises? The result is an essential read for anyone interested in the complex processes that drive science and the forces that have shaped our marvelous brains.
We Know It When We See It: What the Neurobiology of Vision Tells Us About How We Think by Richard Masland
Harvard researcher Richard Masland investigates the human eye in this insightful account of what vision reveals about intelligence, learning, and the greatest mysteries of neuroscience. Covering everything from what happens when light hits your retina, to the increasingly sophisticated nerve nets that turn that light into knowledge, to what a computer algorithm must be able to do before it can be called truly “intelligent,” We Know It When We See It is a profound yet approachable investigation into how our bodies make sense of the world.
The Future of Brain Repair: A Realist’s Guide to Stem Cell Therapy by Jack Price
Neurobiologist Jack Price assesses the potential of stem cell therapies to treat such brain disorders as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries. Price explains that repairing the human brain is difficult. He examines the self-repairing capacity of blood and gut cells―and the lack of such capacity in the brain; describes the limitations of early brain stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative disorders; and discusses current clinical trials that may lead to the first licensed stem cell therapies for stroke, Parkinson’s and macular degeneration. And he describes the real promise of pluripotential stem cells, which can make all the cell types that constitute the body.
NeuroScience Fiction: From “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Inception,” How Neuroscience Is Transforming Sci-Fi into Reality―While Challenging Our Beliefs About the Mind, Machines, and What Makes Us Human by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga
In NeuroScience Fiction, neuroscientist and author Rodrigo Quiroga reveals the futuristic present we are living in, showing how the far-out premises of 10 seminal science fiction movies are being made possible by discoveries happening right now, on the cutting edge of neuroscience. He also explores the thorny philosophical problems raised as a result, diving into Minority Report and free will, The Matrix and the illusion of reality, Blade Runner and android emotion, and more.
The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us about the Science of Language by Albert Costa
In The Bilingual Brain, leading expert Albert Costa explores the science of language through a wide range of cutting-edge studies and examples from South Korea to Spain to Canada. Looking at the development of the brain from infancy to old age, Costa shows us the impact of bilingualism on everyday life: from a bilingual’s ability to multitask and make decisions to the way in which they interact with those around them. An absorbing examination of an extraordinary skill, The Bilingual Brain leaves us all with a sense of wonder at how language really works.