Clean thinking

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ|July 2020

Clean thinking
Some of us found solace in self-isolating, enjoying time for clearer thinking. For others, lockdown is slowing the mind too much. So how can we stay sharp for now and the future?
Vicki Bramley

Some of the more uplifting scenes from lockdown were of people “making memories” with drive-by birthdays, at-home art installations and virtual everything. It’s safe to say that before the pandemic our minds were in a different, more distracted place with the cacophony of daily life. And we have forgiving ways of describing the effects on our brain function: names slipped the mind, facts perched on the tip of the tongue, we lost our train of thought or needed some mental gymnastics to figure something out. Before the breather that lockdown gave our brains, we may well have been less concerned about making memories than keeping memories.

The good news is we each have the power to maintain our mental focus and memory throughout life. We might wonder if we’re losing more spark with each birthday, but experts tell us it’s a myth that cognitive decline is inevitable. As neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin says in his book The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well, “Yes, some things do slow down, but our health, happiness and mental sparkle need not.

“Most of us can go through to the end of our lives without significant memory impairment unless we have Alzheimer’s, which is rarer than most people think,” he explains over Skype. True, we do take longer to retrieve words, we’re less adept at multitasking and may not pick up technology as quickly. But we make up for it by being more astute at solving problems, especially interpersonal ones, and by being better at identifying patterns, which makes us wise.

While the chaos of our pre-pandemic lives may have muddled our thoughts and made us fear for our brain function, social distancing may be fragmenting our focus in a different way. “All of the stress of emails and such before the pandemic may have been unhealthy and led to chronic stress and information overload, and people may have had difficulty concentrating or trouble sleeping [because] they were so stressed,” says Dr Levitin. “What I noticed [during lockdown] is there was not quite enough stimulation to keep our brains firing on all cylinders. We need a small amount of stress.”

The solution is approaching sharpness as a lifestyle choice. “It’s about mindfulness,” says Dr Levitin. “By mindfulness I mean being deliberate, not just letting your life unfold. But asking yourself, what do I want my life to be, how do I want to be, is this a time when I should be thinking about changing myself?”

Rekindle curiosity

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July 2020