on boredom, plasticity, stillness and hope

I just survived a hemtentavecka (it's a kind of written exam - answering a couple of questions around the course material; most often for us, each answer should be roughly two pages, so it's really not a lot), and I struggled. I didn't struggle with the writing or reasoning itself (although I did have to fight with words like purposive, vicissitude and constitutive), but I really struggled to get started at all. I always procrastinate, I always do them last minute; that's pretty much how I've handled school my whole life. But this time felt different. My brain felt more unwilling than ever, it just didn't want to do any work at all. I feel like I've gotten more stupid during the pandemic? Like my brain has lost the capacity to do anything that is the tiniest bit difficult at all. There's no strength in there to push through resistance. I don't like it.

I came across an article by Ellen Cushing in the Atlantic from March about exactly this: "'We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,' said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. 'Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.' Living through a pandemic - even for those who are doing so in relative comfort - 'is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,' said Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory. [...] 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."

And I felt (maybe strangely?) relieved when I read this. It felt good to know that I'm not alone; to know that I'm not the only one who's been made less ... functional by boredom. (She also writes about living through the pandemic with "obscene privilege" which I can very much relate to as well.) I'm also thinking about how good the brain is at adapting. Once life starts back up again, my brain will get used to those situations again. And all the people I meet, and all the impressions of the outside world, will hopefully help my brain train that beautiful synaptic plasticity again. I can't wait.

Speaking of hope, Austin Kleon wrote so beautifully recently about being dormant, not languishing. (Read it, it's really good.) "It is a mistake and a misreading of nature to think that you, a living creature, will be flourishing all the days of your life." ... I know that demanding of myself to be productive and happy right now, is asking way too much. I'm working on allowing myself to be dormant. That permission feels important. Difficult, but important. When I reach it - in short periods, before I lose hold of it again - it's such a relief.

There's a certain kind of faith in being dormant, too.

When I look back at my life, certain years shine brighter than others: Years when everything happened, years when I was at my most alive. Between those years are periods of calm. That is when I recharge my batteries, but while it's happening it doesn't feel that anything is charging at all, it just feels like stillness - or worse, like nothing. It's only after the calm period is over, that I understand that the stillness is fertile soil for all the life-affirming intensity that comes after.

Recently, while I was looking for something different (hiking pictures!) in my blog archives, I found (again - I keep finding it when I need to, then forget about it again until I need it next time) this quote in a blog post from early 2017: "Listening to: My 2014 playlist. So many good things happened in my life that year (good things happen most years, but 2014 was exceptional for my personal development) and I'm trying to get back to the feeling I had then - that anything's possible and that everything fun is ahead of me." Reading this, I remembered that the first few months of 2017 were actually rather meh. And 2014, one of the shiny intense years in my life, then seemed like a faraway dream that I wanted back.

Little did I know that I would find myself in the most shiny period ever (so far!) just a few months after writing that. Early 2017 were the last months of a dormant period but I didn't know that then; I longed for the feeling I had in 2014 and didn't know that
was going to start happening in just a few months.

Soon, friends. Soon. Soon, brain, you'll get to stretch and exercise and learn and experience and develop and practise again. And then we have some work to do in repairing this broken world.


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