DEAN BURNETT, THE neuroscientist who has popularised the field with books like The Happy Brain and The Idiot Brain, recently began a series of blog posts on the ‘Pandemic Brain’. A question that interested him was the hoarding of toilet rolls in the US immediately after the pandemic’s spread. Sure, it was a much-needed item but then so was water and no one was making enormous stock piles of water bottles. Also it was not as if there were no alternative to toilet roll: water, for example. A big reason for the panic over toilet rolls, he postulated, could be the disparate connections the brain makes. People were being told again and again that washing hands with soap water was the key to not get infected and save themselves. That was an act usually also done after people go to the toilet in regular times. The brain just put two and two together. He wrote, ‘The human brain is very good at spotting patterns and making connections… But hardly anything we experience or know about doesn’t come embedded within a wider context, so our brains are regularly making intuitive and heuristic leaps. So, we’re being bombarded with messages that we must wash our hands, so we need soap. Where is soap usually kept? In the bathroom. Where do we wash our hands most often? In the bathroom. Why do we most typically wash our hands, in non-plague times? Because we’ve just been to the toilet. When you think about it, there’s a clear link between buying soap, washing hands, and the need for toilet roll. That many people would subconsciously make this connection perhaps isn’t surprising. It may not explain the whole panic buying thing, but it may explain why toilet roll is suddenly such a priority for many.’
That the brain has a life of its own as removed from its holder has been self-evident for humans for a long time. At its simplest it goes by the term subconscious. In the modern era, it led to the field of psychoanalysis, which soon made way for the more certain benefits of medication, the Prozac revolution, for instance. In times of social isolation, the definition of what is such a medication can itself curiously change. The suicide of the first alcoholic in Kerala was received in WhatsApp groups with general sarcasm. But by the time six had killed themselves, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had announced that medical prescriptions of booze might be permitted to give relief to such cases. That no doctor is going to write a chit that has an alcohol brand was immaterial. Alcoholics are extreme instances, condemned by physical dependence that is exacerbated by the isolation itself. Theirs are however not the only minds to rebel and fold into depression. Ordinary people are affected too but, unlike alcoholics, it takes time to become apparent. Until then, much like the pandemic itself in its early stages, the volcano bubbles underneath. The Guardian, in a story on how Europeans are coping mentally with the lockdown, mentioned a survey in Italy in which ‘93% of respondents said they felt at least a little anxious, while 42% described a distinct drop in their mood and 28% reported that they were not sleeping well’. This was only in the first week of confinement. In the US, by April 2nd, when the pandemic panic was in full swing, a poll showed that as many as 45 per cent of the adults reported mental health issues.
The brain is used to being in a certain way; interrupt and it makes its displeasure strongly apparent. The only mechanism it has is to hurt its wearer to force equilibrium to return. Anxiety is the mind asking for a return ticket to a familiar state
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In India a spurt in mental issues, both related to fear of the disease itself and the consequences of social isolation, is inevitable. The Times Of India reported on how Jaipur was witnessing an increase in mental health issues and wrote, ‘Sleep disorders, cognitive imbalance and anxiety are the most common symptoms many people are complaining to neurophysicists, clinical psychiatrists and psychologists in Jaipur. The lockdown, which has forced people to stay indoors, has started taking a toll on the mental health of people.’ Every city in India will experience similar phenomena. Governments recognise and prepare for it. Bengaluru-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, for example, has initiated a counselling help line that is receiving of thousands of phone calls.
At its root, the problem is straightforward: the brain is used to being in a certain way; interrupt that and it makes its displeasure strongly apparent. The only mechanism it has is to hurt its wearer to force equilibrium to return. Anxiety is the mind asking for a return ticket to a familiar state. This would work very well if you are at an office meeting and the brain wants you to go to a movie. You could cook up an excuse and scoot. You have some amount of control to humour the brain. But when the world is under siege by a virus and breaking the lockdown means the police making you do duckwalks, it is really not an option. The brain, though an instrument of great complexity, is somewhat deficient in calibrating responses according to gravity of circumstances. Think of an OCD patient, who is terrified of the most mundane thing possible, like, say, the sound of an air-conditioner from a neighbour’s house. If that same brain comes to know that a meteor is on its way to obliterate the earth, its reaction is more or less the same. Where you get a firsthand look at this blindness of the brain is in silent meditation retreats.
In the vipassana meditation tradition that the late SN Goenka brought to India from Myanmar, which has as its foundation a 10-day silent retreat, there is something that he warns about on its very first day: that, from the experiences of the tens of thousands who participated in such courses, they know that the feeling to run away is at its desperate extreme on the second and fourth days. People come up with different reasons for wanting to leave. To some, it is an unnamed fear. In others, it manifests as something concrete. In Goenka’s own case, he had heard accounts of other meditators seeing a flash of light in their head and he did not. The fear that, being a businessman, he was not fit to learn this meditation told him he had to leave. (He didn’t after being persuaded by someone to stay back.)
He warns everyone to be conscious about the brain’s cunningness in wanting to escape and yet, many still beg to be allowed to go back. When it comes to the mind, foreknowledge of an event is no guarantee of protection against it. The second and fourth days are the toughest but the absolute necessity to flee can strike on any day depending on the temperament of people in such retreats. I was once a volunteer in one such retreat in Nalanda, a km away from the remains of the ancient university. It was a small centre and a lot of foreigners who did not get admission in the Bodh Gaya one ended up coming there. Of two Spanish women who came together, one started haranguing the other to get out from the second day itself while the other seemed completely unaffected. She persuaded her friend to complete the course. An Indian from Patna went on a standing dharna to be allowed to go and succeeded. The mind can also create its own realities. On the sixth day, when the teacher supervising the course interviews participants to check on their progress, I overheard an Israeli woman saying that she felt as if there were little creatures running over her legs. After the bell on the 10th day rang to permit communication again, those unsettling experiences were forgotten almost at once. The mind had found its comfortable habitat and the senses had enough to keep themselves occupied. I have been doing such retreats for many years now and still, every time I have observed the mind cooking up new phobias. Once, I became obsessed with the recurring sniffle of a man sitting far away from me. It began to dig into my head like a drill. And then for the briefest of minute the meditator next to me made a sound and the fear turned in that direction. The sound at the back continued but now it seemed inconsequential. When the sound nearby did not repeat, the mind again went to its old obsession behind—the drill started again. The reason such anxieties come to the surface during a vipassana retreat is because every usual sensory input—music, books, conversation, television, etcetera—are prohibited. All you have is your own mind to deal with. What you can observe is its characteristic for amplification. It can take something insignificant and fill itself with it. During this lockdown, if you see two neighbours quarrelling over flowerpots kept in a common corridor or over a stray dog being fed, it is the mind amplifying the situation, seeking some answer to the disruption of equilibrium and catching on to any that it can get, no matter how irrational. It is what makes housing societies ostracise doctors, the very community who are protecting them. The purpose of the meditation is to recognise the character of the mind and to meet it.
What is common to forms of meditation such as vipassana is to divert the mind from the object of your fear. Because that is all that mind is: a composition of thoughts existing by feeding on sensory inputs
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Ramana Maharshi, a modern sage who spent most of his life in a cave in Tamil Nadu, had a single line to answer anyone who asked him how to meditate: go to the source of the thought. For instance, if you are feeling afraid, ask who is it that is feeling the fear. Vipassana asks you to shift all thoughts to the observation of bodily sensations: if you are feeling afraid, look at what is happening physically within the body and appreciate its impermanence. What is common to both forms of meditation is to divert the mind from the object of your fear. Because that is all that mind is: a composition of thoughts existing by feeding on sensory inputs. When deprived of it, it takes whatever is on offer and blows it up to satiate its hunger. You can beat it at its game with practice. The American rationalist and intellectual, Sam Harris, himself a vipassana meditator of another tradition, terms it a ‘skill’ that is possible for anyone to cultivate. But you cannot do it once the crisis begins, the training has to be done when the mind is fit. Anyone who begins meditation for the first time as a way out of the pandemic’s anxiety is in for disappointment. There are however still other strategies to tap.
In certain vocations social isolation is the norm. Like astronauts. One study by the Russian Academy of Science in conjunction with the European and Chinese space agencies placed a six-man crew in a simulated spaceship en route Mars for 520 consecutive days during 2010 and 2011. A Wired article reporting on it said that there were large individual differences in how people reacted but out of six, four ‘showed at least one issue that could have exploded or led to a severe adverse effect during a Mars mission’. Before space flights, astronauts are confined for long durations on earth to test whether they would be able to endure it. US space agency NASA says in its website, ‘NASA carefully selects crew members and trains and supports them to ensure they can work effectively as a team for six months. NASA also studies how isolation and confinement can alter astronauts’ individual and team health and performance as well as tests strategies to mitigate any negative impacts.’ Writing in the New York Times, an astronaut, Scott Kelly, who spent a year in the International Space Station, compared social isolation during the lockdown to living in space. And he gave tips from how it is dealt with in space. They are simple: create daily routines; because time will stretch make schedules that mix recreation with work; go outside for some fresh air (this one might not work under current conditions in India); start a hobby; write a journal; help others in whatever way you can; think of yourself as part of a larger whole. He wrote, ‘I’ve seen humans work together to prevail over some of the toughest challenges imaginable, and I know we can prevail over this one if we all do our part and work together as a team.’ Essentially, keep the mind occupied with wholesome things. Allow it free rein to feed itself and little good comes out of that.