Quarantine Effect on the Brain: A Neuroscientific Approach

Megha Parikh ‘21

Brain. (n). an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity [1]. Those activities include, but are not limited to, controlling emotions, regulating the body, interpreting outside information, protecting the body from harm [2]. 


On March 13th, 2020, Americans were faced with an unprecedented predicament as the United States took preventative measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. Initially supposed to last only two weeks, the coronavirus pandemic affected households everywhere. Whether it was unemployment or health, Americans dealt with countless external hardships. But the internal struggles shouldn’t be overlooked. 


The past eight months of quarantine have attempted to keep COVID-19 cases to a minimum, but unintentionally pushed emotional stress to a new maximum. Many people use their commutes to work or walk home from school as time for themselves, to just breathe or take a moment. Now, people are filling their days with things to do to keep them preoccupied and their minds off the reality happening around them. The fact is, 2020 is a year for the history books. In addition to a global pandemic, the world witnessed racial injustice, a presidential election, wildfires, murder hornets, and so much more. It’s been a demanding year to say the least; that said, the human brain can only handle so much, and all these stressful events build tension in the brain. 


[3] A team at Johns Hopkins University was curious about the brain’s ability to make quick decisions and how these decisions changed the brain and if it impacted certain behaviors. In short, certain decisions require complex neural networks from multiple parts of the brain that work together for coordination. Prior to the pandemic, people were constantly making split second decisions–run and catch a train or uber to work, read the news or chat with a stranger–and it allowed them to enhance their neural networks. The study goes on to explain how these networks are lacking in function for older people, which causes them to fall down because their brains have a difficult time processing and reacting to certain stimuli, such as trying to stay balanced. In other words, the repetitive mundanity of life during the pandemic may contribute to a lasting decline in our decision making ability. Wake up at five in the morning, breakfast at six, first meeting at seven, get off work at five in the evening, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. Unfortunately, there are no complex decisions–what the team would classify these decisions as–because each day is the same as the last. It is important to note that this study was not designed to reflect people’s neural activity during the work day using their cerebrum, but those everyday decisions that the frontal cortex is responsible for. Nonetheless, eventually not making any decisions over a long period of time will speed up the brain’s aging process. 


[4] Now more than ever, people desperately need time for self-care. In an article from the American Psychology Association, author Jennifer Doran writes how mental health leads to physical health which leads to improved overall performance. Self care is a lot of people’s way of clearing their mind, along with exercising, talking to friends, or listening to music. Living in a global pandemic means putting an emphasis on mental health because of how stressful the situation is and how taxing it is on everyone. Doran writes how a simple day off with no worries can make a person more productive the entire rest of the week. But many people are struggling to find that time, making it harder than ever to relieve stress and clear minds.


[5] There are a plethora of long term effects this pandemic will have: economic uncertainty, unemployment, and a decline in mental health. The last focus of this article is on the effect of technology. Prolonged technology use is, to put it simply, bad: especially for students. This is likely to have lasting effects greater than those of the former two paragraphs. A study at Duke University found that using technology for a prolonged period of time leads to higher ADHD symptoms with young students fidgeting from not being able to get up and move: a situation similar to distant learning. Two studies, one by Duke and another by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, yielded opposite results in the correlation between technology and depression. In young adults, which was the focus in the study in Sweden, more technology led to decreased happiness. However, in adolescents, which was the focus of the Duke study, more technology meant less depression. With both groups having an addictive relationship with their screen, young children are more susceptible to learning and build a need for technology use, whereas young adults who grew up without technology as a necessity are able to differentiate between a healthy and unhealthy amount of technology use. 


Those young adults in high school don’t have as much of a tolerance for prolonged screen time because of the difference in environment growing up as opposed to the current pandemic lifestyle. Diving into the negative effects of screen time, children face insomnia and headaches, causing them to be less productive in general. While neural receptors accurately signal to a body when the right time to fall asleep is, blue light, which is emitted from technology screens, alters the brain’s understanding of nighttime and daytime. The brain releases melatonin to help a person fall asleep, and emitted blue light tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime, therefore not releasing the hormone necessary to fall asleep [6]. The uproar of blue light glasses, which improve sleep and therefore productivity, can help counter the effect [7]. Before this finding became well known by a large population, children were struggling with headaches both directly from blue light emitted from their screen, and indirectly through lack of sleep as a result of the blue light. What is the long term effect of blue light? Well, it’s a recent finding and research cannot vouch entirely in favor of blue light filtered glasses in the long run. But in the short run, it has been proven to help many people who are in front of a screen all day. As for adults, their neural networks, as mentioned before, are less coordinated, and the increased screen time may be speeding up the aging process. Blue light prevents sleep and therefore messes with the networks and how efficiently they function [7]. Nowadays, no one is safe from the adverse effects of screen time but staying mentally and physically healthy can help potentially reduce the effects.


In the end, whether people are concerned with the long term effects of a vaccine or the economic downturn, they should be concerned about the long term neural effects. Brains are extremely perceptive and can be rewired in just five minutes with visualization and manifestation [8].