In One Ear, Out The Other: How Travel Will Help With Late-Stage Pandemic Brain

A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic ran an article by writer Ellen Cushing, who documented what the pandemic had done to her everyday behaviour. It’s a worrying read – but considering how weird and disruptive this last year has been, you may be able to identify with it (and with its subheading, “We have been doing this so long, we’re forgetting how to be normal”).

Contemplating the tyranny of pants


Cushing recounts her increasingly swiss-cheesed memory:

“The forgetting feels like someone is taking a chisel to the bedrock of my brain, prying everything loose. I’ve started keeping a list of questions, remnants of a past life that I now need a beat or two to remember, if I can remember at all:

What time do parties end? How tall is my boss? What does a bar smell like? Are babies heavy? Does my dentist have a mustache? On what street was the good sandwich place near work, the one that toasted its bread? How much does a movie popcorn cost? What do people talk about when they don’t have a global disaster to talk about all the time? You have to wear high heels the whole night? It’s more baffling than distressing, most of the time.”

All this is anecdotal, so far. As Cushing notes, it’s still too early for proper studies of the pandemic’s effect on human behaviour (plus, we’re still emerging from it). But it does seem clear that it will have taken its toll on us in some way, and perhaps even mirroring incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive episodes – and memory loss.

One of the big issues here is our sheer lack of daily novelty. For obvious reasons, we just haven’t been anywhere new, haven’t had those delightful, surprising moments of serendipity that come from random conversations with strangers, and the curious sides of our brains haven’t been given a proper – or at least a normal – workout. Quoting Tina Franklin, a neuroscientist at Georgia Tech, Cushing notes:

“Prolonged boredom is, somewhat paradoxically, hugely stressful, Franklin said. Our brains hate it. “What’s very clear in the literature is that environmental enrichment—being outside of your home, bumping into people, commuting, all of these changes that we are collectively being deprived of—is very associated with synaptic plasticity,” the brain’s inherent ability to generate new connections and learn new things, she said.”

So what can we do to correct this?

One answer is obvious. As the newly-vaccinated world opens up, we’ll all be thirsty for travel experiences to an extent we’ve rarely felt in our lives – and that could be seen as our brains doing a bit of healthy damage control on our behalf.

We all know the feeling

Travel is an endless parade of novelty: new sights, new tastes, new rules of social behaviour we fumble our way through until we learn them, even something as basic as a new ambient temperature, signalling to our bodies that we are definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. It’s also a great way of learning to pay closer attention to everything around you, as I explain here.

(An extended period of travel – like that offered by a Wheel and Anchor LiveAways program – should give you a boosted version of all these things.) 

Travel can add up to the opposite of a negative stress response – something that excites and elevates our body state and lights up our central nervous system like a fireworks display. As that happens to us, it seems likely our short to medium term memories will fire themselves up to pre-pandemic levels, and the fog will lift from our minds.

But that doesn’t mean travel is the only fix available, which is good news if you’re seeking a quicker way to wake yourself up from this strange, hibernation-like year of waiting. Exercise also seems to fit the bill nicely: here’s the New York Times summing up some recent research on it. So does sex (which is arguably the most fun kind of exercise). And chocolate – and a whole bunch of other nice-feeling things.

The common factor here is the triggering of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that seems to regulate feelings of reward (aka. satisfied pleasure), motivation, memory and attention. A burst of exercise will give you a burst of dopamine that seems to make it easier to use your hippocampus, the part of your brain most strongly associated with learning and memory.

And it appears that the novelty of travel experiences – aka. a state of heightened curiosity about the world and everything in it – triggers much the same process

It’s nearly time to let your curiosity lead you to new adventures…

An interesting thing about the hippocampus: it’s so sensitive to stress that in cases of major depression, it’s been seen to shrink in volume by as much as 20%. Anhedonia, a state of chronic incuriosity that’s linked to depressive episodes, seems to be a very rough analogue for what we’ve all been feeling during lockdowns – so it doesn’t seem like a leap to suggest that losing the ability to enjoy your surroundings also carries with it an increasing risk of long-term memory loss and impaired memory formation in the present, tying in with what Cushing notes in her article.

All this is speculative (and I should add, I’m a travel writer, not a medical professional). But if you can identify with how Cushing has increasingly been feeling…

“Mealtimes come, and I eat. Needs arise, and I meet them….Everything is two-dimensional, fake, uncanny. My world is as big as my apartment, which isn’t very big at all.” 

…then take heart: you’re not alone. It’s a thing. And if you’re pining for your next trip, maybe your brain knows best here. 

In the meantime, go for a walk at every opportunity, don’t hold back on the chocolate, and…well, have all the kinds of fun that are available to you. This isn’t just about distraction and going easy on yourself – this is about helping your mind recover from prolonged trauma. 

And it’s a nice thought that in the future, many of us probably won’t remember a lot of the everyday trials and stresses of the last year, because that’s just not how good, lasting memories are formed. Maybe what’s going to be truly memorable is what happens next, as we spread our wings and head out into the world again. 

Wouldn’t that be a nice thing to look back on? 

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