Boom! Boom! Boom... and down.
Just like a firework. We went up in the sky and now we are coming down again with pale colours. Disappointing, scaring, frustrating, frightening. We started our blog only a month ago and life resembled its old style somehow. And now we are, almost everywhere in Europe, facing another lockdown. Problems seems to come up at every corner and as much and as fast as we would like to turn away and turn everything off, it seems we can't really escape the fact that at the moment everyone's context is a bit doom and gloom. Hope has left on pure white wings together with the flocks of geese flying south in search for another summer. We are not going back to where we were. Bye.
And we, humans without wings and too much brain to spend? What should we do? Where should we go to hide or hibernate from the unsettling news? Where can we find our summer again? Our brain plasticity has an immense ability to adapt, it is a shape-shifter more than in any other being on Earth (Eagleman, 2015), but the amount of uncertainty surrounding us at this time can make even the most resilient person feel a bit wobbly. And every brain overwhelmed with all the updates needed to rewire itself according to the current context.
Clark (2013) talks about brains as predictive machines, they are "bundles of cells that support perception and action by constantly attempting to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations or predictions". In simple words, our brain consistently attempt to guess what's coming up next in order to be better prepared for possible action.
We can imagine how much more work the brain might be doing in front of a new situation such as the pandemic and the lockdown, where sensory inputs might be very different and expectations remain mostly unattended.
Uncertainty then sets in with uncomfortable amounts such that the brain, unable to predict most daily events, fires up a threat response. "I can't predict well enough, then my dear companion, you could be in danger."
How could we cool it down again?
Well, sometimes the answer lies in the most simple recipes. What is so extremely predictable and obvious in our every day life? What is that container that make our life so structured and comfortable?
Our routine is formed by a set of actions that we engage with on a daily basis (or so) so much that they become habits. Habits use zero brain energy and have predictable outcomes, that are learned and consistently reinforced. Routine responds to the predictive coding theory (Muckli et al, 2013; Petro et al, 2020) of our brain which estimates what's about to happen, in this case, obtaining an accurate prediction with minimal error.
The brain then is less overwhelmed, less overworked and freed from small decision making. It has a surplus of energy and space that can be possibly used for creativity and focus for the task. It is less likely going to find obstacles to complete the actions planned and more prone to find satisfaction in a predictable reward that can be easily expected by habit (Martell et al, 2001).
What to do then in Lockdown number 2? If your routine is not hindering but promoting you and others, go ahead and make even more of it. Is your routine making you feeling confined and restricted? Introduce novelty as variety is key to increase rewards such as achievement, pleasure and connections to others. Has your routine lost part of itself due to the restrictions? Don't leave that time empty but find a suitable alternative.
Ultimately ask yourself if your routine is mirroring your values, those qualities of yourself that you want to show in life and those directions that you want to take.
Your routine could maintain a basic structure, or have a new face or just some additions or alternatives and still satisfy predictability. But as long as you keep it close, like a precious old friend or a warm overused blanket, it will make you feel safe, solid and grounded whatever happens and whatever the restrictions.
Just don't let it go. Boom.
Clark, A. (2013) Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,36(3), 181-204.
Eagleman, D. (2015) The brain: The story of you, Edinburgh, Canongate Books.
Martell, C. R., Addis, M. E. & Jacobson, N. S. (2001) Depression in Context: Strategies for Guided Action. Norton.
Muckli, L. , Petro, L.S. and Smith, F.W. (2013) Backwards is the way forward: feedback in the cortical hierarchy predicts the expected future. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(3), p. 221.
Petro, L. S. and Muckli, L. (2020) Neuronal codes for predictive processing in cortical layers. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 43, e142.