I SPENT a gloriously normal Christmas this year. For me, normal is defined as usually three, sometimes four generations temporarily under one roof. Everyone, young and old, mucks in with the cooking, clearing and washing up. Rotas are drawn up for the bathroom, spare mattresses and duvets are stored in the biggest bedroom and shifted each evening and there’s a constant hubbub.
This year, we were fortunate to enjoy the company of my 90-year-old grandmother. She took great delight in sitting in her comfy corner, admiring her progeny bustling around her, and concentrating intently on the web of conversations taking place amongst us all.
It was often fast-paced and energetic. Most of us catching up on news and opinions from across the counties, professions and ages, with the excitement of purely being altogether after so long. It’s what makes Christmas, in my view.
At one point my grandmother had a fit of giggles at it all, saying she could feel her brain whirring, stimulating neural chemistry as she listened to all the different discussions. She realised it’s what she’d been missing.
Of all the chatter and catch-up, this was the moment that repeatedly struck me on the long drive home. It chimed with my own experiences and it is something I have often pondered on during the past almost two years.
When society was told to shut its doors and the country went into a series of unprecedented lockdowns, I noticed that finding the correct word during conversations was often tricky. I could feel the brain fog descend and the word on the tip of my tongue went unsaid. Was I suffering from the early onset of dementia? It was starting to worry me so I asked around.
A relative, an avid reader, told me she could not concentrate properly to read any books; she had to resist the feeling of constant distraction. An artist friend described how the vital inspiration needed to create was escaping her. I heard Neil Oliver (legend!) on the radio admit that his word count per day for his next book was drastically reduced when restrictions were in place. So it wasn’t just me!
Even when restrictions were eased, life did not return to complete normality. In particular, the social side. People were just too scared, either of Covid or doing the wrong thing. Laura Dodsworth’s timely and excellent book, A State of Fear, describes the ‘fight or flight’ phenomenon and how fear can quite literally freeze your brain as blood is instead sent to your limbs ready to make a run for it, if required. The fear I felt was not of any of the 350,000 mutations of a virus but of the government’s shifting goalposts and seemingly creeping steps towards totalitarianism. Perhaps my brain needed a bit of thawing out?
I have vague recollections of my biology A-level. Interest in this area has stayed with me, and when I became a mother I was reminded of the marvel that is the development of a child’s brain.
Infants experience an explosion of synapse formation during early brain development. These are the junctions between the brain cells, or neurons. Every hug, tickle and smile helps develop and reinforce positive connections to form pathways in the growing child’s brain. Different sources quote different numbers so I’ll just put that the total number of brain connections could be in the trillions by about age three.
Knowing this is what makes witnessing a masked mother with her baby in a supermarket trolley so upsetting. Through the eyes of the child, the strangers of the world must look detached and unfriendly. What type of connections are being reinforced under these situations? Check out this video of the Still Face Experiment if you think it’s ‘just a mask’.
At the other end of life, old age can be accompanied by a range of diseases that stop the brain from functioning properly. The charity AlzheimersResearchUK.org.uk acknowledges that there is no sure way of preventing the onset of dementia and there is at present no cure. However, their website lists ways to make it less likely of being diagnosed with it, such as: ‘Keep using your brain – through activities or social groups you enjoy.’ Hmmm, I would have thought it best to scrap all social distancing and restrictions then, eh? Permanently.
But we are not supposed to question the prescribed narrative fed to us in daily briefings and sponsored adverts from the government and their advisers. Such narrow, brain-numbing announcements tell us how simply to pass through life, not how best to live it. Until the Prime Minister declares that eating healthily and keeping our minds and bodies active is the best way to deal with disease, I’ll keep hitting that mute button.
With the arrival of the New Year comes resolutions. How about we all find people to chat with, to reconnect with, and I’d quietly add: to ignore the ever-changing rules with, as best we can? Being amongst others, be it whingeing about the weather or explaining bold plans to a friendly ear, is our best weapon against the creeping authoritarianism that’s finding footholds in our society. Question ‘the science’ and start thinking again.
We need to keep our synapses firing, continue chatting, reigniting creativity, smiling openly at our children and putting fear back in its box.
2022: More connections please, less of the brain dead.