A friend told me the other day that she doesn’t know if it’s post-Covid brain fog she’s suffering from, or if it’s undiagnosed Lyme disease or some other sinister condition from all the microplastics in the ocean that are eaten by fish or shellfish, then ingested by those of us who ride high on the food chain while supporting our local fisheries.
She got me thinking. She is not the first person to report a dulling of brain function lately. Her comment sent me to my texts on social psychology, immunology, and neurophysiology. That’s how I deal with reflecting on the effects of the behavioral changes we have all experienced during these Covid years. Many of us are also asking how to stay healthy and help one another to stay healthy.
American psychologist Robert Ornstein said at the beginning of what President George H.W. Bush declared “the decade of the brain” (1990-1999) that “people without close contact with others have higher morbidity and mortality from many causes than people with intimacy.” He also said, “When people band together and develop ties, their health improves.”
In discussing how stress can fog the brain, Ornstein asserted that “people who view the world as coherent are more resistant to stress-related illness than people who view it as chaotic.”
Candace Pert, a neuroscientist who was ahead of her time, documented the ways that our emotions are carried through our bodies.
As theories of consciousness have matured and technology has allowed scientists to look within the brain, these observations have been validated. We need intimate connections with other humans to stay healthy.
One researcher, Stephen Porges, writing on behavioral neurobiology and interpersonal behavior, described human development in terms of how we influence each other all the time. That is, all the time when we are in close contact. His polyvagal theory emphasizes how our autonomic nervous systems respond with fight-flight-freeze behaviors when we bipedal primates face off. If we perceive danger, we reflexively organize either mobilization or immobilization. When we perceive safety, we are soothed. We can and do physiologically relax one another with the fronts of our bodies. Think about babies you’ve held close.
Being too “sensitive” is often considered shameful in our hyper-individualistic society. But it is a basic human attribute. We engage our senses in navigating our way through the world, assessing friendly environments and those that are less friendly or even hostile. Preferring places where we are welcome is a characteristic of human nature.
Our ability to sense our most intimate partners’ intentions accurately and adapting, and sometimes resisting, accordingly offers a measure of the sustainability of those relationships. Sensitivity and the ability to put it to work in cultivating healthy relationships in our work and play may be the backbone of a successful life.
With war being waged and confusion and its consequences rampant, pundits will philosophize. We hear a great deal about competition and polarization as characteristics of human nature.
Yet here we are, after two years of huge upheaval in our daily activities, including our access to others, rediscovering how it is to see one another’s smiles, to hug friends with less hesitation. Let us cautiously treasure this time.
Let’s remember this as war is raging in Ukraine. “Polarized” is not the only story about who we are as humans. Hate has to be taught. Empathy can be taught as well.