10 Ways This Pandemic Might Actually Have Cognitive Benefits

New research shows how adapting to the pandemic may carry hidden brain benefits.

Posted May 16, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

There’s no doubt that being required to cope with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic was not anyone’s choice. You have undoubtedly spent the last several months wishing that this never happened, especially if anyone you care about became ill with or succumbed to the virus. Even without experiencing the health effects of the coronavirus, your life has changed in what seems to be an irreversible direction.

Will you ever be able to hug the people you greet, shake their hands, or even be able to speak without the interference of a face mask? When can you return without worry to your favorite stores, restaurants, theaters, or sports arenas? Are you missing that long commute to work that you once found to be so miserable? When can you even get back to work?

As you ask yourself these questions, you may also be pondering the ways you’ve already tried to cope with the many life changes the pandemic has necessitated. Think first about getting together with your family. Face-to-face events now take place virtually, from visiting relatives in nursing homes to celebrating birthday milestones with your cousins and their children. You can’t hug that very huggable newborn baby your best friend just welcomed into the world. However, you might be home with your own children and/or partner on a 24/7 basis, changing dramatically this aspect of your close relationship dynamics.

Next, consider the simple act of going to the grocery store. Clad in facemask and gloves, you wait in line outside until you’re allowed to enter. When you pass through the aisles, you see that the store is sold out of your favorite items, whether it’s frozen peas or the infamous holy grail of shopping, a few rolls of toilet paper. So that you don’t have to spend too long in the store, you swiftly reconstruct your week’s planned meals not using that rice or pasta which is gone from the shelves. You’ll figure out that toilet paper situation later.

As stressful as your daily life has become, is it possible that there are hidden advantages to the many 180 turns you’ve had to make in order to adapt? Neuroscience research makes it clear that one of the keys to a healthy brain throughout life is to put it to use in solving novel situations.  In a newly-published paper, Tel-Aviv University’s Noa Herz and colleagues (2020) note that “the mind is a dynamic construct that can change according to circumstances” (p. 184). Can this work in your favor?

To explain the ways in which the mind can accomplish these dynamic feats, the Israeli authors propose a global construct of “State of Mind (SoM),” or the “dispositions and tendencies, which together comprise our current state” (p. 184). Incorporating the realms of perception, attention, thought, and affect (mood), the SoM can range, in any given moment, from narrow to broad.

Some mental tasks may require that you narrowly focus your attention but others that you broadly take in as much information as possible. One of the key features of SoM that relates most closely to the role of solving novel problems is the personality dimension of openness to experience, or ability to appreciate new thoughts, experiences, feelings, and activities. In the words of the authors, “broadening our openness and exploring enables us to learn and make new discoveries” (p. 187).

In describing the activities in the brain that underlie the opening of your attention to novel experiences, Herz et al. note that effective problem-solving requires that, when necessary, you’re able to switch on or off the neural circuits that will allow you to explore the environment. In other words, there are times when you need to follow the tried and true pathways, and other times when you have to look elsewhere for solutions to your problems.

Can flipping the switch in your brain to allow you to solve new problems actually benefit your brain’s health over time? According to a 2015 paper by Mathias Ziegler et al., people high in personality openness are less likely to experience cognitive declines later in life. Their “Openness-Fluid-Crystallized-Intelligence (OFCI)” model proposes that the more open you are to new ideas, activities, and thoughts, the more your inherent, “fluid” intelligence will benefit. As a result, as you get older, you’ll also gain in the “crystallized” part of your intelligence that gains in depth and scope of knowledge.

Here's how the OFCI model can work. Think about the last time you streamed a video on a topic that you knew nothing about, just because you thought it might be fun. As you find yourself becoming absorbed in the video, you feel yourself turning into somewhat of an armchair expert on the topic. That knowledge becomes part of your permanent repository, thereby adding to your crystallized, experience-based, intelligence. You'll keep that knowledge with you and ultimately use it to expand even further now that you've jump-started the process.

How, then, can coping with the new normal of the pandemic help to capitalize on your own OFCI? Consider these 10 areas, and after reading through them, see what you might add based on the adaptations you’ve had to make:

1. Home schooling your children. As you become the educator of your children, whether at preschool or high school levels, what new knowledge have you gained? Did you honestly know, before now, just how many different kinds of dinosaurs there were? What were your algebra skills like prior to sitting down with your teen over the week's worth of math homework?

2. Learning to sew, or at least, work with fabric. Those facemasks you’ve been wearing may have been one you had to craft yourself, perhaps using the basic CDC method of folding a bandanna over two hair elastics. However, as time goes on, and you want something a little easier on your ears, perhaps you refreshed your basic sewing skills and came up with a design bearing your own personal stamp (a dinosaur pattern, perhaps?).

3. Cooking with less. As the grocery store shelves become devoid of your favorite items, you’re adapting by reworking your old recipes with whatever ingredients you can cobble together. No chocolate chips? No problem- just chop up some candy bars and recalibrate accordingly. Other recipes, similarly, can be adapted or maybe you can even learn some new ones relying on your existing stock of canned goods.

4. Budgeting with less. The cuts in family income for the time being mean that you can’t afford the basics, much less the niceties, of your old life. You’ll not only be cooking with less, but also be less able to supply your family’s many other needs. It might be time to look at all of your spending habits and come up with alternate plans that will maximize the resources you do have. If you've got hidden talents, find them now, and perhaps even start your own little online business.

5. Taking care of your own grooming needs. If your local or state officials say you can’t go to a hair salon or barbershop, and you’re worried about how you look on your Zoom calls, you’ll need to get out the scissors, clippers, or home hair dyes. Perhaps you’ll even learn that it might be okay to let those gray hairs start to make themselves known to others now, giving you a new if not more mature appearance.

6. Figuring out how to get your arts fix. If you’re a live theater buff, you may be surprised to learn about the many streaming shows you can watch for free. Subscribe to one of those channels to learn of their weekly offerings. Your favorite vocal artists, similarly, may be live streaming their concerts, and art museums may be letting you visit their online exhibits for no cost.

7. Becoming a better hunter-gatherer. The need to find those valued household commodities from paper goods to disinfecting agents means that you now may be honing your Internet shopping skills to a fine art. Dredging the deepest recesses of the web, you’re becoming a pro knowing where and when to pounce for those brief moments when the items suddenly become available.

8. Exercising without a gym. When gyms and fitness centers closed, it meant that people who got their daily dose of weight-lifting or cardio had to come up with creative solutions on their own. It’s a hardship not to be able to enjoy being with your gym buddies, though, even if you are able to work out at home. Again, turn to the videos offered either free or at minimal charge, and you may even learn to love a new exercise you never would have considered in the past. You might even be able to run a virtual marathon, providing you with a much-needed motivational boost.

9. Coping with boredom. It’s great to have more time in your day if you’re able to take advantage of telecommuting, but now what will you do with those extra hours? Depending on where you live, you may be able to get out of the house and at least see some new scenery, but if this isn’t enough, see what a new hobby can do to stimulate your mind. YouTube is full of instructional videos for whatever crafts you’d like to learn. You can even re-learn the joy of reading.

10. Mastering new technologies. The need to communicate virtually in almost every phase of life, from education to weddings, is prompting even the most technologically-phobic to adapt. People who resisted getting on the online bandwagon now find themselves becoming pros in the subtle arts of videoconferencing. As a side benefit, they can now also take pride in themselves for gaining these valued skills.

As you read through this list, what were those other benefits that you never considered before? As you’ve had to make those adaptations in your daily life, did you feel your own crystallized intelligence begin to expand? Are you learning about strengths within yourself that you never realized you had? Start keeping your own records and, within days, you’ll undoubtedly be amazed at the way your own brain has adapted to this unprecedented need for new solutions.

To sum up, stressful situations place great burdens on everyone. With some creativity, though, you can turn those burdens into boosts for your brain.

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Herz, N., Baror, S., & Bar, M. (2020). Overarching states of mind. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(3), 184–199. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2019.12.015

Ziegler, M., Cengia, A., Mussel, P. & Gerstorf, D. (2015). Openness as a buffer against cognitive decline: The Openness-Fluid-Crystallized-Intelligence (OFCI) model applied to late adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 30, 573-588. doi:10.1037/a0039493