Could the Pandemic be Good For Your Brain?
Everything we read about the Covid-19 pandemic sounds all bad. Death, disease, isolation and privation - none of that can be pleasant.
Still, I've been wondering if that global scourge might not have done some good for my brain. Learning new things and solving problems has to be good to keep brain plasticity rolling along.
I have to admit. I've become a different person this past year, and I hope my brain is different too. No it's not just staying at home, wearing a mask and using tons of hand sanitizer. Like many others I have been working at home more than usual, but as a consultant that was nothing specially new.
The real difference about work in particular and life in general is the way I've been Zoomed. I'm not unfamiliar with online communication. I’ve taken lots of online courses and webinars before the pandemic. And I even organized a couple of webinars and Google hangouts for my college classes. But in the year of Covid the pressure for online communication has been overwhelming.
One of the organizations I consult for has done a complete makeover of their business model. From giving workshops face-to-face, now all their workshops are done through Zoom sessions. And with rentals, per diems and travel no longer limiting factors, they are giving more workshops than ever.
My naturalists club has gone from offering a lecture in a rented hall every month to offering only Zoom lectures. Recordings are available afterward for those who couldn’t make it.
To make this happen, we all had to learn to organize our personal and professional lives through remote communication. We had to figure out the software and help some of our associates who hadn’t used computers very much before. We had to learn about virtual hand clapping, asking questions in chat and keeping our pets quiet while others are talking. We had to deal with microphones and webcams. Would Zoom work best for us on a desktop, laptop, a tablet, or a smart phone?
"Stuttering? I don't stutter." "No, your picture is stuttering! Your voice sounds weird." What was that about bandwidth anyway?
The biggest single technical hurdle however was screen sharing. All kinds of formal communication require audio visual aids - photos, slide presentations, videos or software demos. Screen sharing with Zoom ought to be easy right? There’s a button for that! The big hurdle was how to share audio as well. Many of us suffered through Zoom sessions where the audio went silent as soon as screen sharing began. This would lead to feverish exchanges in the chat or frantic hand waving in front of the camera. Sometimes only a quick phone call could provide the problem-solving aid required.
Basic Zoom technology was only the beginning of our education. Human factors had to be internalized as well. What about lighting? Many of us appeared on the screen as shadows or silhouettes because of strong light from a window behind. And when you get some light on your face what kind should it be? I would experiment with this before the Zoom session. Wow, that ceiling fixture is really harsh! What is that weird light coming up from below my chin that makes me look like a character out of a horror movie? Why does this light make me look too yellow, too blue or too green?
Lighting was only the start of the personal issues. What should I wear? Can they tell if I haven’t shaved this morning? How does my hair look? Hair? What about my obvious lack of same? Turns out my best Zoom sessions are those where I am wearing a baseball cap. Not only does the cap protect my eyes from pot lights in the ceiling, it also spares those seeing me online from excessive glare.
Still worse had been the prolonged decision-making process that led to the baseball cap. Was it sufficiently business like? What about a tweed cap? What about a beret, a toque, a skullcap? I even considered a do rag. Oh no! After only a small amount of exposure on the glowing screen I had turned into a divo.
After the agony of deciding on a baseball cap what else should I wear? Normal business attire seemed like an easy choice. But was it truly necessary? As the first weeks of Covid stretched into months I found myself going more and more casual during Zoom sessions. Others that I watched on my screen were clearly doing the same thing. Does this mean that on the other side of this pandemic fashion will be dead? Will gym clothing be de rigueur through constant habituation to an online norm?
Then there is that most sensitive clothing issue of all. Do I have to wear pants? I don’t know about you but I find the normal pair of trousers worn for business meetings a bit uncomfortable when I’m spending all day at home. I don’t know... the belt just seems a little too tight, the crotch just a little too high and the legs a bit too stiff for bending my knees under the desk.
No pants at all is certainly an option. Nobody cares on a Zoom call. Yet for warmth alone I prefer sweat pants, track pants, or even long john underwear. Reminds me of the habitual response of Kevin Pollock's character in Mrs. Maisel. When asked to answer the door or take out the garbage Kevin often hollers from some remote part of the house, “I don’t have any pants on!" Wouldn't work for Zoom!
The pressures of vanity and public image seem to expand exponentially. After the initial anxieties of visage and attire are dulled, suddenly my environment is also up for review and potential criticism. What kind of image of my home office or living quarters do I want to project? Should it be au naturel? Sure, seated at my desk with my bookshelves behind me seems like a strong professional image. But are those bookshelves too messy? Why is there a dirty coffee cup up there? Should I really have all those papers stacked in a gap between the books? And do I really want to reveal I do my best thinking when sprawled in an easy chair?
Fortunately the entrepreneurial people at Zoom responded to this new unease with virtual backgrounds. Their choice is limited but I often get along very nicely with some green grass or slowly undulating northern lights. I have contemplated but never got around to finding some rather grand interior photo online and putting that behind me as a backdrop. Buckingham Palace perhaps. Having thought about this, however, often leads me to inspect closely the backgrounds of others on my Zoom sessions. How many of them I wonder have either tidied their space specially for the Zoom session or even substituted it out with a grander background image. A sheet artfully draped over objects in the background is a dead giveaway.
Yes a lot of getting used to pandemic living has involved solving my Zoom challenges. Beyond that the Zoom sessions have provided a fascinating and not always flattering new view of my friends and colleagues. Those like myself who have learned to fastidiously mute or turn off the camera when simply listening don’t have much to worry about. Deciding what image to project in place of my smiling face is the biggest demand. It's during those lectures that the greatest dangers arise.
All who have been students taking afternoon lectures know the incredible urge to close your eyes for just a second or two. You have to fight to stay awake. When you’re not a student and you're attending an afternoon talk in a large hall just for fun, it's much worse. Many in the audience will doze for brief periods sitting up. No surpise that I've observed the same thing happen during a Zoom lecture. I get a chuckle out of seeing you with your head nodded forward and oblivious to the brilliant things the speaker is saying. But it's not very pretty. Turn your cameras off people! Then you can even scratch your nose. I know I do.
Does this mean I can now brag about my brain on zoom!
Portions of this article previously appeared on Medium.com: https://dave-barr.medium.com/on-becoming-a-covid-divo-45696358346c