Isolation impacts the brain, researchers say

By Melissa Coade

Thursday August 12, 2021

A growing body of evidence suggests isolation ‘greatly affects’ the way people remember and process information.
A growing body of evidence suggests isolation ‘greatly affects’ the way people remember and process information. (simona/Adone)

If life in lockdown has you feeling just not right, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests isolation ‘greatly affects’ the way people remember and process information.

Cognitive and memory issues have been found in a study of 4,000 Italians subject to lockdown over two months.

Speaking about the research, cognitive psychologist Professor Brett Hayes said 30% of the study respondents reported their everyday cognition suffered ‘some degree of change’.

According to Hayes, who works with UNSW’s school of psychology, respondents with emotional issues or who experienced depression, stress and anxiety, had even more symptoms.

“But even for those without those issues, these cognitive issues were very common,” Hayes said.

He added that examples of the ‘Groundhog Day’ effect on people included difficulty focusing attention or losing focus on simple activities like reading a book or watching a video.

“Literally starting one job and without thinking about it, going off and starting a second job without finishing the first one,” Hayes said.

Because the brain is sensitive to background contexts, the brain struggles to lay down or retrieve information in ‘Groundhog Day’ type scenarios, Hayes explained. 

In life before COVID, when people could live their lives free of lockdown constraints, people moved around and experienced many different contexts, to give the brain more opportunity to make and recall memories.

“What we know about human memory is that the context is really important. You might be doing a job at home, chatting to a friend, or watching a movie.

“When we have those experiences, we might be focused on the main part of the experience, but our brain is actually encoding a lot of other things just incidentally, like where that’s happening, the location, where and when it’s taking place,” Hayes said.

The ‘Ground Hog’ day effect is usually a cycle of variations of the same events every day, leading days to blur into one another and resulting in the experience of memory fog.

Hayes pointed to another study of Scotland’s two-month lockdown in 2020, which tasked participants to complete online testing of selective attention, memory and decision-making skills. 

That study found although people experiencing lockdown conditions performed poorly, they recovered those skills quickly once restrictions were lifted and they were no longer socially isolated.

The researchers also learned that people who had conversations with others in the last three days were more resilient to the negative cognitive consequences of longer lockdowns.

“People who were able to maintain their online interaction more during lockdown did better at these tasks,” Hayes said. 

“Complete isolation is really very bad for our cognitive functioning, but if we can keep up that level of interaction to some degree with whoever is in our house or online, that seems to be good for our cognitive functioning.”

Ways that Professor Hayes suggested people could stave off lockdown brain fog included exercising more to give variation to their days, online brain games (ones with a social dimension are preferable) and opportunities to move and stretch such as yoga and dancing. 

“Keeping up regular exercise is good to try and keep our memory and decision making in shape as much as you can during lockdown,” Hayes said.

“From a memory point of view, if you are able to exercise outside the house, vary those exercise paths from day to day to just to allow a different context for your brain to encode those different days, if you want to be able to remember what you did from day to day a bit better,” he added.


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