Rewiring

I have had moments of feeling a little wired this week – a little fluttery if you will. It is probably a combination of too much coffee and too much screen time. Odd that in a time when we are allowed to do less, I should find my heart racing too quickly. I usually overthink things, but this week, I really just haven’t got round to reminding myself to do so; I have felt distracted – not present – if you will.

My number of ‘senior moments’ has also been on the rise – you know (or perhaps you are more fortunate than I), that feeling of entering a room and then not having the foggiest idea why you are there. Or, when you resort to referring to someone as ‘thingy’ or that ‘nice man’ because their name eludes you. This is a little too vague even for someone as woolly as me.

I have always been a list writer, but some days this week I have found I have started three or four lists without remembering that I have previous lists on the go, or where I have left them. To add to the indignity, I have to supplement each list with a flurry of post-it notes. I can no longer close the lid on my lap top because I have stuck a rainbow of reminders around the screen to catch my attention; they will all moult and die if I slam my tablet closed too quickly and where will I be if I can not find any of my lists?

Fortunately, my increasing amount of screen time has led me to the discovery that my forgetfulness may be a brain rewiring brought about by lockdown, rather than my advancing years and the price I have to pay for refusing to show any prior interest in cryptic crosswords. No, the University of Westminster has narrowed the problem down to my hippocampus (in fairness, their research may also relate to your hippocampus, so you may wish to read on…if you are still paying attention).

Our hippocampus is the area of our brain associated with memory, and at the moment, for most of us it has zoned out because we keep doing the same things day in, day out. It is telling itself, ‘no, nothing new here’ and, because it is bored, it is not bothering to fire up. You can’t really blame it. I guess it is the same as driving the same commuter route each day and not remembering any of the journey because you drive it on auto-pilot.

Not only have we normalised this new lockdown experience – admittedly after a white-knuckle summer to get on top of new tech demands – but we are interacting less, and when we do, we tend to have the same conversations over and over again with the same people (lovely though these people are). We probably also have less interesting stories to tell because if we do go out we are probably going to the same few places with the same people (and this is if we are lucky enough not to need to go alone).

I have the opposite of Facebook envy at the moment because when I do scroll, I see the same people post the same photos of the same walks – at least the weather changes in these photos and this gives us something to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, these people are lovely – and so are the photos – but I feel I know a lot of National Trust walks quite well right now, and also the regular coffee and cake of choice for those lucky enough to nab a takeaway. In truth I am probably just envious of the motivation these people show in getting off their sofa when, unhelpfully, their hippocampus is saying, ‘no, nothing new to see here’. I hope I can remember my friends’ favourites walks and cakes of choice when I am able to join them in the flesh again. I also hope I can remember their names.

I certainly know that I miss trivial chit chat. I love it at school if the stars align in the WFH rota and my socially distanced colleagues get to work a day in the office. I don’t care if we end up talking Covid or box-set binging, at least it allows my brain a screen-break – and often a belly laugh. My sister used to say, ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,’ so, to fire up my hippocampus, I have decided to make up some weekend stories to share with my lucky colleagues on Monday.

If you’re still following the pseudo-academic side of this post, life hack No. 1 is now coming up:

1. To keep our brains engaged, at the end of the day we should try and remember to tell three interesting things that have happened/have captured our attention to someone other than ourself. I may have to embellish the ‘interesting’ but I am going to start writing myself a list and challenge myself to get to three each day (fiction is fine) – and also write myself a couple of reminders to take the list home at the end of the day.

My research continues. Sadly, even if I do manage to engage people with my witty repartee, apparently our attention spans have got shorter, because it is so easy for us to get distracted by tech; now I realise that my stories are going to have to be hyperbole on steroids if I am to nab the attention of those I love for longer than the 3-6 minutes that they might have mustered before this pandemic.

Life hack No. 2 coming up:

2. Academics tell us to set a timer to focus for an undistracted 15 minutes (no googling, coffee break or Facetube) and if you do last 15 minutes , you can reward yourself with a two minute bonus break, or set your timer and deep dive for another 15 minutes (show off). Once you master this, you go for 30 minutes. I give you to the Coach to 5K of Hippocampus training – oh, and your phone must be screen face down and on silent.

I am so forgetful these days, that I glossed over the part of the research that refers to us being increasingly prone to leaving sentences….

incomplete,

This again boils down to the fact that we are probably talking less and so have less practice warming up our vocal chords and stringing words together. If we do get to speak on Zoom we often get cut off by a fellow Zoomer or find we failed to switch off mute before delivering our killer one liner. The message bar allows us to offer fragmented gobbets of a sentence so our sentence memory is flagging. Cognitive memory is apparently one of the first things to go when we are feeling under stress, so it is also no surprise that a word may hang tantalising out of reach and then reappear in the middle of the night when you do not need it.

Stay with me reader: Life hack No. 3

3. Either play word games with your family (hmmm, can’t see Favourite Man engaging with this), or challenge yourself to go through the alphabet with an A-Z of countries or cheeses (insert other categories here if you can be bothered). Use it or lose it people,

Anyway, I conclude with good news, Birmingham City University reminds us that all this increased screen time may also be rewiring our brains, and it may not all be negative. We have increased our screen time from 300 – 600 minutes a day, but a lot of this time has been used for engaging with friends and family so we are actually better at seeing people – and looking straight into their eyes when they are talking (cameras on, people). We are social animals, so a crazy 18 months should not turn us back into cave men, we are wired to keep evolving. As we will need to decrease our screen time down again post-lockdown, perhaps we can have a little limber up while we have time, and start to decide how we are going to do this. This should fire up our lounging hippocampus quite nicely.

Sorry, I have a distracted feeling that I should be doing something else right now and I can’t remember what it is. My phone timer is ringing and I can’t remember why. Time to unplug myself and go for a run. I know there was something else I was going to tell you before I signed off, but I seem to have lost that post-it note.

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