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THE NEUROSCIENCE OF NEW BEGINNINGS

Neuroscience of new beginnings

The neuroscience of new beginnings: how do our brains help us to adapt to a new way of life?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

We are now into a new year – 2021 – and can thankfully put the awful 2020 behind us with good  riddance! Heralding the start of a new year allows us to feel optimistic about fresh new beginnings, having reflected on the harsh lessons we all had to face last year.  And perhaps the harshest lesson of all has been having to accept that nothing will ever be the same again. We can read the stories and lessons of the last pandemic – the Spanish Flu of 1918 – which lasted approximately two years. But this time we are experiencing first-hand the Coronavirus and the deprivations that have come with having to adjust to a wholly different way of life. Not only did we have to get used to wearing masks and being more meticulous about our personal hygiene in 2020, but we also had to become socially distant. And you may well catch yourself watching movies depicting people in the pre-Covid days of mingling in crowds, exploring the streets of new cities without worry of infection, and cementing new friendships with a spontaneous hug. It is no small feat that we have learned to get used to life without these simple pleasures, and may never again in our lifetimes enjoy the carelessness that we had before 2020. So how does our brain enable us to face a different future – starting in 2021 – with these new realities, and to help us relinquish some of the things of the past that we took for granted?

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Flexible thinking is an executive function associated with the prefrontal cortex that enables us to adapt and to accept new situations quickly without resistance.  It is a cognitive function that has contributed to the success of our species.  Homo Sapiens have been the most successful in our planet’s history, not because of our longevity on earth (compared to other species – if the history of the earth was a 24-hour clock, we would only have arrived at one minute to midnight – much later than many mammals), but due to our ability to survive and adapt.  We are top of the food chain, because we have managed to flexibly change ourselves in the face of changing environments and to manipulate natural resources to our advantage (but to the detriment of climate change).  So, it makes good sense to build on this natural talent that led to the evolutionary swelling of our prefrontal cortex, and use it to adapt to this very novel pandemic situation we find ourselves in.

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Survival is a gut instinct and is represented in the brain by various homeostatic processes, which keep our bodies on an even keel when outside circumstances change.  For example, if the weather gets too hot, our bodies cool us down by sweating, an involuntary function controlled by the anterior hypothalamus, which is a region in the centre of the brain.  The hypothalamus is also a structure that regulates many other functions, such as appetite (gut function), stress and sleep.  And while the hypothalamus function is involuntary, it is maintained and altered by experience, which is processed consciously at first by the prefrontal cortex.  So, for example, if food suddenly becomes scarce, our prefrontal cortex will hold on to this information consciously until our appetite adapts to the changed environment.  The sooner our prefrontal cortex is able to update non-conscious, involuntary processes, the quicker we can survive in our new environment.  But this isn’t an easy task – our brains also register a sense of change as a sense of loss, which can increase feelings of anxiety and depression. However, learning is simply a process of transforming conscious (prefrontal cortex) information into unconsciously processed habits, and learning helps us to control our negative emotions too.

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With all this in mind, if the changes brought about by the pandemic make us feel like resisting and  holding on to the past, or worse, make us suffer from anxiety and depression, we have to try to maximise the ancestral strength of our prefrontal cortex function.  If we can apply our conscious learning processes, to train ourselves to find new joys in this new situation, then we will quickly adapt and survive.  For example, for those of us able to use computers to connect to people online, we might find ourselves talking to far-flung friends more often or attending courses online that would not have been possible before.  But for those of us who don’t have such online access, what other joys can be found in social distancing, or reducing our social bubble to only a few people?  We can for a start, explore the good things on our doorsteps and learn to value the small things that people have to offer.  We might not see as many people on a day-to-day basis as we did in the past, given that we are forced into our homes and into working remotely.  But a smile from a stranger in the street, or small talk with a friend or relative on the phone, or even just a casual chat with a shop assistant, can mean so much more to us now than it ever did.

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The new pandemic era of 2021 – which will hopefully bring vaccination to Africa soon – will at the very least teach us to adapt to the simple pleasures of everyday life that we may have forgotten in the busier lifestyles we led in pre-covid times.  So, let’s see this as a real positive, as a way to enjoy our new social lives, as we continue to survive.  Happy New Year Harfielders!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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