What has 2020 done to your brain? The impact of this rollercoaster year

The impact of this rollercoaster year will have long-reaching effects on us all – both emotionally and mentally. But, according to the experts we spoke to, there are some surprising benefits, too…

Reaching the end of 2020 feels like no small feat. Over the course of a tumultuous year, we’ve navigated all sorts of emotions and situations: good days, bad days and days where we’ve just wanted to stay under a duvet and come out when it’s all over.

And, unsurprisingly, the implications of what this means for us reach much further than we might realise. We’re not just feeling the effects emotionally – scientists say that they have impacted us on a neurological level, too.

2020 brain illustration
Illustration: Ellie Allen-Eslor

To find out exactly what this year has done to our brains – and what we can do about it – we spoke to a group of experts, from psychologists and psychiatrists to neuroscientists and behavioural specialists.

Their insights are enlightening – and not always as negative as you might fear…

It’s given us brain fog

We’ve heard that fuzzy thinking and lack of mental clarity is a symptom of ‘long Covid’, but according to Dr Sabine Donnai of Viavi, a health assessment and strategy company, you don’t have to have had the virus to be suffering from brain fog.

‘The past nine months have had a serious emotional impact on a lot of people,’ she says. ‘The combination of anxiety, loss of control of the external environment, a reduction in social interaction and physical activity, every day feeling the same and numerous other psychological pressures has taken its toll. In some people, this can lead to a form of depression. Depression is characterised by an imbalance of hormones in the brain, and when these hormones are out of balance, it can lead to brain fog.’

This is different to post-viral brain fog which, explains Dr Donnai, is the result of damage to the blood/brain barrier. ‘This barrier exists to protect the brain from toxicity that is circulating in the blood – it’s like a dam, but in some cases that dam can leak and the result is a series of inflammatory processes in the brain, which may be characterised by fatigue and lack of clear thinking.’

Want to know whether you’ve got mild depression or post-viral issues? Both tend to have fluctuations throughout the day: ‘If you have brain fog in the morning, it’s more likely to be depression – especially if you also wake up at about 3am or 4am, as that’s when levels of the hormone cortisol (which responds to stress) start to rise. But if your brain fog gets worse later in the day, it’s more likely to be virus-related.’

The good news is that, whatever’s causing it, you can take steps to combat brain fog. ‘Remain active, take care of your gut – eat fermented foods and lots of veg, take probiotics – as much of your immune system resides in your gut. And stay away from sugar, which can cause inflammation,’ she says.

We’re better listeners

‘Since lockdown began and we were forced into meetings via video, rather than in person, I think we have become better communicators,’ says Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University. ‘In these types of meetings, only one person can talk at a time, so we have been forced to listen and take turns at speaking.

‘We’ve become good at waiting for someone to stop talking – it’s become about dialogue rather than a series of monologues. If someone wants to interrupt, they have to virtually “put their hand up”. Not only has that pushed us to be more polite than we might be in face-to-face situations, but it has also meant that more timid characters are encouraged to have their say in a way that they might not have done in real life.’

Professor Jackson thinks that even if we do go back to in-person meetings, the convention of raising your hand to speak may well continue. He also believes that wearing face coverings has forced us to listen more closely to what people are saying.

‘You can’t lip-read and the voice is often muffled, so we have to really concentrate on what is being said,’ he points out. ‘We’re actively focused on listening, rather than just hearing what someone says.’

We sleep less

Poor sleep seems to have been an almost universal problem during the pandemic. According to psychiatrist Dr Mohamed Abdelghani, who specialises in mood disorders, that’s not at all surprising. And it’s not solely down to worrying about Covid and its knock-on effects.

‘Over the past nine months, and especially during periods of lockdown, a lot of people have had a lack of structure in their days,’ he says. ‘So they may work late into the night and lie in the next morning. They’re also not getting as much physical activity which means they’re not so tired. And when they’re not tired, they don’t sleep as well or as deeply, so the next day they feel drained. The lack of activity affects sleep, but then lack of sleep means they’re less likely to be active – and so the cycle continues.’

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This is further exacerbated by the fact that if we’re not going outside as much, we’re not being exposed to the light that helps to inhibit melatonin, the sleep hormone which normally rises at night and is at its lowest in the morning.

‘Melatonin is one of the hormones that helps to sync the body’s biological processes with the time of day,’ explains Dr Abdelghani. ‘The ultimate example of them being out of sync is jet lag, and many people may be experiencing a less extreme form of this where they’re tired and hungry at the wrong times of day.’ The solution is structuring your day – forcing yourself to get up at the same time every morning, resisting the urge to nap, trying to do some physical exercise (outside if you can) and practising good sleep hygiene, which means avoiding caffeine later in the day and alcohol, which can disrupt sleep.

‘You also want to try to get your brain to associate your bedroom with sleep, which if you’re working from home can be hard,’ says Dr Abdelghani. ‘But if you can, avoid working on your bed, or watching a film lying on it. The idea is that your bed should be a signal to your brain that it’s time to shut down and sleep.’

It’s made us adapt

Ever wonder why everyone got so obsessed with banana bread? There’s a reason for that. Human research agency Walnut Unlimited has been polling consumers throughout the pandemic to see how they are feeling – and, as the company’s consumer neuroscientist and brand consultant Dr Cristina de Balanzo explains, one particular sentiment shone through.

‘In the massive rollercoaster of emotions that this year has provoked, the only emotional state that seems to have been maintained is uncertainty. As humans, this hits us hard,’ she explains. ‘Our brains are mainly predictive machines and without a clear-cut future path they struggle to compute.’

However, the upshot of this is that the brain ‘finds a way to take back control of life. You see this manifest in the way that people started cooking more, or doing more exercise, or taking up hobbies such as drawing,’ she says. ‘It’s all about finding a new way to create the sense that you have control, and this is how the brain survives uncertainty. New habits are adopted that give an immediate reward, as that’s what we need to cope with this situation.’

We’ve lost social skills

It turns out that those face masks, which are an important barrier to the transmission of the virus, can also act as a barrier to communication, as clinical psychologist Dr Jadzia Duncan-Bosu explains. ‘When we look at someone, we usually read their emotions from their face – and different emotions are picked up from different parts,’ she says. ‘Cues for anger, sadness and happiness are picked up from around the mouth, while fear is detected from around the eyes.

‘But when someone is wearing a mask that covers between 60 and 70 per cent of their face, we can only read the eye area, and when we base our interpretations on this alone, we tend to misjudge someone’s emotions. We perceive fear as neutral, confuse sadness with disgust, and when someone is angry, we might think they are disgusted, afraid or neutral.’

In the short term this has an impact on our perception of a social situation and we can find ourselves subject to misinterpretations and misunderstandings, but not being able to read people properly also has a knock-on effect. ‘We lose confidence in our ability to have social interactions, and that in turn impacts on our brain,’ says Dr Duncan-Bosu. ‘There’s a saying that neurons that fire together, wire together – neurons are the information-transmitting cells of our brain and the idea is that when a group of them get used to working together, you create neural pathways, or learned behaviours and habits that the brain recognises.

‘But if – as in the case of trying to read someone’s emotions when they’re wearing a mask – we’re struggling to integrate the information that we pick up, those neurons aren’t firing in the way that they used to and those pathways don’t get regularly used in the same way. This might well have longer-term implications for our ability to empathise with others and feel connected to them.’

We’re more forgetful

It’s not your imagination: it’s probable that this year really has made your memory worse and shattered your concentration skills, as Beatrice Andrew, behavioural science consultant at human insight consultancy Verj, explains. ‘The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is involved in memory formation – for example, black cab drivers in London who have to memorise every back street have larger hippocampal areas than normal.

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‘It has been shown that isolation and stress reduce the size of this area of the brain – so theoretically, physical changes in structures such as the hippocampus might result from increased social isolation during the pandemic.’ Andrew considers that it is early in the day to draw definitive conclusions, but a recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Society suggested that the symptoms of patients with Alzheimer’s had worsened since lockdown began, and almost half had reported increased memory loss. ‘Fewer new experiences during lockdown means fewer opportunities to lay down new memories.’

However, those hobbies that your brain pushed you to take up can come in handy here. ‘Challenging yourself or learning a new skill can help to reverse this by aiding memory formation, as can simply just getting outside and going for a walk,’ says Andrew.

Our increased interaction with computers and smartphones may also have had a negative effect, with research suggesting that spending more time on our digital devices can have a detrimental impact on our attention, memory processes and social cognition. ‘We’re encouraged to divide our attention at the expense of sustained concentration or flow, which is the idea of being in a state of total immersion in a topic, with no distraction,’ says Andrew. ‘But exposure to outdoor environments increases our ability to concentrate.’

There are other ways to improve concentration. Meditation is one of them, but ‘simply creating boundaries between your “time off” and “time on” – especially when you’re living, working and socialising in the same place – can help. As can giving yourself screen-free time.’

The good news, says Andrew, is that any changes aren’t likely to be permanent. ‘Our brains aren’t hardwired. So as much as they have changed over the course of the pandemic, they will also adapt as we go back to normal.’

Words: Claire Coleman