Why Lockdown Could Be Turning Your Memory To Mush (& How To Reverse It By Adding Novelty To Your Routine)

If you saw the rom-com Groundhog Day, you know that this movie explores the question, “What would it be like if you woke up every day to the exact same routine?” I doubt the filmmakers knew they might be predicting reality for many people during the Covid pandemic, and I’m even more certain they never wondered what such repetition could do to your brain.

If like me, you’re among the privileged who are able to work from home, sheltered safely in place while the kids are in remote school, you may feel like you have no right to complain about the monotony of waking up every morning to yet another Groundhog Day. You have your lockdown routine. You practice gratitude for your good fortune. Every day is more or less the same, but it’s a good day, compared to all the suffering in the world, so you carry on, day after day. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

While it’s good to keep things in perspective and resist the temptation to complain about all we’ve lost, while it’s worth examining our entitlement and adjusting to a slower pace, while gratitude and awareness of our privilege are important for good mental health and social justice awareness, there’s also good reason not to gloss over the absence of novelty in our lives and the influence it has on our brain health.

Groundhog Day Isn’t Optimal For Brain Health

After reading about the neuroscience of what’s happening to our brains during lockdown, I realized that Groundhog Day routine, uninterrupted by novelty, does odd things to our neurochemistry and neuroanatomy. Have you noticed how 2020 became a bit of a blur? That’s because, typically, changes in your schedule parse out time, registering the passage of time and helping you create distinct memories, which are stored in the hippocampus. 

So what happens when the kids no longer go to school Mon-Fri and you no longer go to an office five days a week? What if you no longer go to the yoga studio on Wednesdays or your Sunday morning church or your Friday night dinner parties or your Tuesday night meditation group?  Every day begins to blur into the next, and time becomes a hazy jumble of run-on moments. If you think your mind is turning to mush and affecting your memory during lockdown, you’re not making that up- and you’re not alone.

The Brain Needs Novelty

According to neuroscientist Catherine Loveday, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster, “Trying to remember what’s happened to you when there’s little distinction between the different days is like trying to play a piano when there are no black keys to help you find your way around.” Life has lost all the black keys- the weddings, the parties, the family holidays, the concerts, the festivals, the holiday vacations. Even the painful black keys- the funerals, the doctor’s visits, the moments of gathering around the bedside of sick loved ones- aren’t happening. Because of this, we have fewer stories to tell and fewer water cooler opportunities to reinforce those memories by repeating our stories and having them witnessed.

Add to this the daily dose of cortisol and epinephrine secreted by your nervous system while you read the news about the worsening pandemic, new viral strains, insurrection at the Capitol, police brutality against BIPOC, economic instability, political divisiveness, conspiracy theories, and all the other scary news, and it’s understandable that your brain might not be operating at peak performance and you might notice that your memory isn’t as sharp as it was before 2020.

Novelty Grows Your Hippocampus

If you’re like me- still in lockdown and patiently waiting for your chance to get vaccinated- chances are good that your hippocampus has actually shrunk this year. Novelty thickens and strengthens the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Think of how vividly you remember those detailed memories in exotic locations or how much color you can recall about your wedding day or the day your child was born. Those were novel moments, times that stood out from the other moments like black keys on the piano.

If you’re among the privileged who did not die or get disabled by Covid, if you didn’t lose any loved ones to Covid, if you weren’t murdered by a cop, if you didn’t lose someone who was murdered by a cop, if you didn’t lose your economic security or your home, if you weren’t on the front lines protesting- then chances are good that the most novel memories you have from 2020 happened remotely, while you were sitting at home reading about something novel far away from you- safely distant- on the news.

So while your brain was flooded with stress hormones, your hippocampus lacked opportunities to exercise the memory muscle that’s stimulated by novelty. It’s likely it may even have atrophied.

What can you do to get your hippocampus in better shape without violating public health guidelines? Even the smallest breaks in your routine can help. Here’s a few tips.

10 Tips To Add Novelty To Your Lockdown Routine

1. If you normally do your Zoom calls at your desk, move your laptop somewhere else in the house. Or bundle up, put a cord on your router and take your computer outside if you can.

2. Spend as little as 15 minutes per day doing something creative. Paint. Write. Concoct a new recipe. Craft a poem or a song. Making something novel that didn’t exist before gives the brain a chance to fire in new ways. Plus, it stimulates endorphins, helps put you in a flow state, flushes all those stress hormones out of your system. And it’s fun to boot! [Feel free to join us in the Healing With the Muse community. We meet on Zoom every other week- with creative homework assignments and a creative writing group in between community gatherings.]

3. Be intentional about shaking things up. Take your walk on a different route. Explore a park you’ve never been to. If you normally watch something at night on screens, pull out the Scrabble game or Rummikub (or my favorite board game, Findhorn’s Transformation Game!) Redecorate a room in your house. Plant a new winter garden of indoor plants. Get in your car and keep going left whenever you hit an intersection. Or even better, pack a tent and a sleeping bag and go on a pandemic-friendly Goddess Quest! (Learn how to go on a Goddess Quest here).

4. Take an online class to stimulate new learning. Pick up a guitar and teach yourself to play it. Learn a new language. Acquire a new skill. Brush up on your visionary business skills with Visionary Ignition Switch. Or if you’re in health care, get on the waitlist for the 2021 Class of the Whole Health Medicine Institute by emailing support@lissarankin.com. We’ll be accepting applications soon!

5. Get a pet. What better way to add new memories to your Groundhog Day than to add an animal to your life? [Watch Penguin Bloom on Netflix for a heart-warming story about how an injured magpie healed a family’s broken heart and body.] But please, if you commit to a pet, keep your commitment. Don’t become one of those tragic impulse-adopting pet owners who then abandons your pet.

6. Shake up your exercise routine. If you normally go for a run, why not try biking? If you typically lift weights in your home gym, why not try an online yoga class? If you usually hike, try dancing.

7. Add variety to your spiritual practice. While there’s benefit to the discipline of a daily morning meditation practice, you could try a different practice every day of the week. Make Monday your mindfulness meditation day. Make Tuesday your kirtan chanting or praise-singing day. Try contemplative prayer on Wednesday. Experiment with automatic writing on Thursday. Use Friday to practice a ritual offering to Mother Earth. Let Saturday be your day of healing trauma through IFS in order to access more Self. Let Sunday be your Sabbath, your day of rest to honor whatever form of the Divine you worship.

8. Make different music playlists to shake up the music in your home. Spotify is great for adding variety to your musical life and lets you make playlists, even offering you suggestions based on your preferences. Feel free to enjoy my Painting Tunes Spotify playlist, which gets me jiggy when I’m making my art.  But don’t listen to it over and over. Make your own! Make one playlist for dancing, one for hiking, one for cooking, one to play while you get creative, and one to get you in the mood for romance.

9. Speaking of romance, if you’re locked down with a partner, try breaking up your routine in the bedroom. 101 Nights of GRRREAT Sex and 101 Nights of GRRREAT Romance by Laura Corn are both fun ways to add novelty to your romantic life. The books are full of surprises. You rip out a page and follow the instructions (thereby surprising your partner.) Surprises are the name of the game for thickening your hippocampus! If you don’t have a partner, try online dating. Meeting new people, even if it’s just for a socially distanced walk, will give your brain new stimulation to chew on. You can even use some dating platforms to find new friends during lockdown if you’re just wanting a way to meet new people.

10. Give yourself virtual holidays. While it’s not yet safe to travel, you can still allow yourself to imagine what it would be like to do so. Read travel books. Look at photos of destinations you’d like to visit one day. Give yourself the virtual reality experience in your mind, imagining the smell of those tropical flowers, the feeling of the salty spray stinging your cheeks, the sounds of the waves and the birdsong, the taste of the mango sticky rice… You can even order in some tropical flowers, find a recipe for mango sticky rice, mist yourself with a salt spray and pretend you’re somewhere exotic! Or order takeout from a foreign ethnic cuisine, watch a movie from that country, and pretend you’re there. Brains are easy to trick! Even though it’s not actually happening, your brain will think it is and respond accordingly by anchoring the neurochemical response to novelty. Then voila! A healthier hippocampus!

*If you sense that it might be right up your alley to break up Groundhog Day by focusing on your writing, stimulating your creativity, healing trauma with Internal Family Systems, and gathering with others who are doing the same, join us at Healing With The Muse. Our next Zoom gathering on February 8 features me and guest teacher Shiloh Sophia, founder of Intentional Creativity, grooving in the playbox together. So grab your cowboy boots and hats and come ready to meet your muse!

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