Denník N

Thinking during a pandemic

It has become a tradition to open a text on the topic of COVID-19 and its related issues with an ambiguous externality (such as a vaccination program). This has effectively shifted our focus to abstract, at least on the individual level, concepts that are bound to change. Although immensely important for the dire situation we are in, once an opinion on a particular issue has been formed we should let it go, revisiting it only occasionally. Our minds tend to preoccupy the precious space of our brains with this information debris to such an extent that there is no space left for the creative and concentrated activity of thinking.

People have stopped thinking. Although a seemingly far-fetched claim, it appears to be the case after a year full of lockdowns. Being in a lockdown is not exactly entertaining, we can all agree on that. However, people have become completely isolated with only one access to their wider pre-corona community: the digital world. For this, we have a tendency to binge-watch Netflix, scroll through 4876 posts on social media and read 17 in-depth articles on The Atlantic. This combination creates an impenetrable information fog that effectively prevents independent thinking.

Consider this… When was the last time you were completely alone, not disturbed by anything or anyone, not focusing on any particular object or problem and your thoughts, independent abstract images, started to form this new surprisingly dazzling idea that has blossomed in your head?

It is rare, isn’t it?

The cause of the information fog is twofold. First, the number of devices we have become dependent on has doubled in a year, and all of a sudden there is this alluring urge to constantly check the internet as if we were to miss an awful lot of information. The prime example of this FOMO (fear of missing out) is the moment you let your hand slide into your pocket to get keys, but instead of the keys you are holding this tempting 8-inch glaring screen of your phone. Although subconsciously resisting the idea, we do not want to be left alone. We seek contact with the outer world which forces us to stay connected no matter what. This longing is hence inextricably linked with the constant flow of, for us quite irrelevant, information.

The second cause is the combination of entertainment and behavioral patterns of our brains. The brain is indeed the superb part of our body, yet it is incredibly hesitant to take any action. One could even go as far as to say that our brains are inherently lazy. The brain always seeks to find the perfect optimization for a particular task. For example, why do we use our phones on the toilet or why do we cheat during exams? These are indeed pertinent questions worth investigating, but I am interested only in the final verdict. The brain is just optimizing. What happens, however, if such a seemingly perfect system gets hooked on two things: a pattern and dopamine?

The brain starts utilizing (read shutting down) all the unnecessary functions in order to optimize the pattern of getting instant and continuous dopamine shots. I imagine this as a following situation: you are sitting behind a desk, mechanically eating snacks while watching ‘the best of cats’ videos. The brain encourages such a functioning because there is absolutely 0 effort put into ‘the activity’ of being. Instead, there is an immediate and effectively endless stream of dopamine thanks to yet another cat with a cheese on her head.

Given the circumstances of the past year, the gray matter of our bodies has precluded us from thinking. The conscious activity of contemplating, of coming up with our own individual thoughts, has become a very demanding process requiring our undivided attention. Engaging in such an activity calls for a complete overhaul of our inner ‘software’. It is the beginning of 2021, it cannot get any worse. It is worth it, I think.

*none of the claims presented above are supported by scientific evidence.


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