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Why can't we focus during this pandemic?

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, people have been wondering why it's so hard to concentrate. But an inability to focus has been with us all along. 

If you’re reading this, it might be because it’s a last resort. For two months, your mind has been all over the place, unable to focus on anything other than moving to different rooms in your house to carry out required human functions. You might be starting this article again, having tried it earlier – a few minutes ago, a few hours – hoping that maybe this, an article about why you can’t focus, will give you the answers. Maybe you’re hoping this will be the thing that finally helps you snap back to normal brain functionality. You, like hundreds of millions of others, are running out of options. 

All over the world, people are trying to overcome one of the few universal problems this pandemic has brought on: that it feels near-impossible to stay focused on anything. Whether it’s work or study, or even pleasurable things like reading, gaming or chatting, everything suddenly feels like a battle against your attention span to concentrate on what was once simply routine.

Since February, there has been a 300 per cent increase in people searching “how to get your brain to focus”, an 110 per cent increase in “how to focus better”, and 60 per cent rise in “how to increase focus”. People are paying for apps and services to help their concentration. But after six weeks in lockdown, why aren’t things getting easier? And for many people, why are things actually getting worse? 

Dr Amy Arnsten is a Professor of Neuroscience and a Professor of Psychology at Yale University, whose work has focused largely on the brain’s response to stress. She has spent her career investigating the brain’s higher functions and how they’re affected by different arousal systems – and more specifically how, when faced with certain input, they can fall apart. 

The basic science you need to know is that your brain’s prefrontal cortex (a chunk behind your forehead) processes “higher functions”, such as critical thinking, inhibiting impulses and, crucially here, the ability to focus. “The prefrontal cortex has got this built in genie that causes it to weaken with stress signalling,” Arnsten says, “whereas the related stress chemicals actually strengthen the primitive brain systems.” 

So essentially, when faced with immediate physical danger, your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can respond quickly and basically in order to protect you.

“You can see how that might have evolved in the kinds of dangers, I mean it continues in modern life with things like getting cut off on the highway... a dangerous situation where being rapid and reactive can save your life,” she says. “But when you have to be thoughtful, it is very dangerous to no longer be able to have your prefrontal cortex to guide you.”


A video from Dr Arnsten on the prefrontal cortex and Covid-19

This brings us to our current situation, in which we are being faced with danger that is ongoing but not acute. It means that, rather than dealing with the immediate danger and then moving on, we are cutting off the part of our brain that helps us think beyond the primitive – for extended periods of time. And our ability to focus is significantly affected. 

Arnsten says there are three major factors that make Covid-19 particularly potent for cutting off our prefrontal cortex: its invisibility; the lack of individual control we have over it; and being forced to go against our normal habits in order to protect ourselves.

“We all know as long as there's no vaccine, this is not under control,” she says. “And the fact that it's invisible makes that sense of lack of control even more pronounced.”

Arnsten does emphasise that the response your brain is having is not unique – it’s been programmed to respond to danger through evolution built into its signalling system since before you were born. “What's unique about it is how global it is, that even in world wars there were parts of the world that were somewhat unaffected,” she says. “But here, with the virus, it really can go everywhere.”

Part of what makes this global phenomenon so strange is that many people are still struggling to focus despite not obsessively reading coronavirus news. Even those who have turned off may have found that it has helped with anxiety, but not with their concentration. Arnsten says this too is a standard response: even ambiently knowing that the situation is not improving can have an effect on the ability to function. 

“Feeling that the government is handling [this pandemic] so very poorly, so you can't trust them to do what's needed to be done to take care of people, can greatly accentuate the stress and the sense of, ‘No one's in control and I really am in danger,’” she says. “The fear of that conceptually affects everyone and especially as you watch the virus spread to places where you think: ‘It's not going to happen here,’... you build up this wall of thinking, ‘I'm safe’ and when you realise you're not, that's when these stress responses would probably become more prominent.”

This doesn’t just lead to an inability to focus, but also to an overall lack of motivation. Arnsten explains that an often forgotten part of our flight or fight response to danger is to “freeze”, which can feel a lot like mental paralysis. “Losing the ability to have really motivated, guided behaviour can be linked to all these primitive reflexes,” she says.  

For many people, this has led to what Arnsten calls a vicious cycle of losing focus, beating yourself up about it, and then making your prefrontal connections even weaker (and repeat). “Why understanding neurobiology is so helpful is that you can watch yourself in that downwards spiral and you can say, ‘This is just my biology, evolution is making me do this, this is normal neurobiology, and I don't have to blame myself, it's okay,’” she argues.

She says that this kind of thinking – being aware and kind to yourself – can help lift you out of these vicious cycles. “It's completely normal,” she says of struggling to focus. “Your brain is wired to do it.”

Because of the inevitability that this situation will be our lives for the foreseeable, people have started to get creative with how they regain their own attention. Some have begun paying for expensive apps to limit their time on social media or turned to techniques they previously saw as unnecessary, like bullet journalling or using the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of work, followed by a five-minute break).

Silent Zoom parties, to mimic the environment of being in a crowded library or study group, have become wildly popular for not just students, but all homeworkers. Some people have returned to reading out loud as a way to force themselves to read beyond a single paragraph. 

While many people now swear by these techniques, they are only useful to those who have the bandwidth to try them. “If you're being asked to do things that put you in danger, or if you're isolated in ways where you're truly lonely, there's a lot of data that shows exhaustion coupled with stress is the worst of all,” Arnsten says. “It’s the kind of burnout, for example, that health workers can have. And with chronic stress you actually lose prefrontal connections... you can actually see on an MRI scan the loss of grey matter from chronic stress.”

With coronavirus specifically, Arnsten says there are also reports showing that the virus itself can have a marked effect on the brain – that inflammation caused by the virus can also result in a further loss of those prefrontal connections.  

It’s not all bad news though, Arnsten says. Beyond knowing the neurobiology and cutting yourself some slack, there is a chance that the damage done to your ability to focus may eventually be able to be repaired. “The data suggests, with rats, that with time spent not stressed, those connections can regrow,” she explains. “And there is also a human study that shows the strength of connections returned over a period of non-stress.” She jokes that people will deserve extended time eating well in restaurants and travelling to calming locations when this is all over. 

Overall though, to reconnect with our prefrontal cortexes, it might be that taking a step back is the thing we all need. “Perspective gives you a sense of control, so hearing, ‘It’s okay, it will be better, my brain will feel normal again'” can help,” Arnsten says. “I think that's really helpful to have that kind of perspective and gain that sense of control.”

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.