In 1947, a Canadian neuroscience researcher named Donald Hebb made a discovery that may explain why COVID-19 restrictions are so unbearable. Hebb performed many of his studies on lab rats housed in small, solitary cages. Being a caring father, he’d bring some of the rats home for his kids to play with. These lucky rats not only got to have fun, but when Hebb was later testing them in the lab, he found they learned faster and scored higher in cognitive tests than the cage-restricted rats.
Later in the 1960s, researchers at UC Berkeley found that rats exposed to “enriched environments” — those with a larger stomping ground, opportunities to socialise, and sensory-stimulating objects to play with — had larger brains.
More recent studies have shown that “environmental enrichment” can reduce reactivity to stress, lower anxiety, improve cognition, and enhance learning and memory — well, in rats, gerbils, rabbits, squirrels, cats, and nonhuman primates. Human data is sparse, given the ethical issues of putting humans in impoverished environments for research purposes.
But anecdotally, many of you may be feeling the effects of an impoverished environment. Finding yourself more anxious than normal? Having trouble remembering things? Feeling less resilient to stress? Just like those unlucky lab rats who never got taken home to play, COVID-19 has left many feeling the ill effects of waking up to the same four walls, the same boring routine, and the same uncertainty of when we’ll be set free.
Even if you’re lucky and live in a country where restrictions have eased, you’re probably still going for walks on the same paths, seeing the same sights, talking to the same people, eating the same food, and hearing the same old news about coronavirus outbreaks and possible vaccines. To add insult to injury, those in the northern hemisphere now have winter to contend with, pushing them back indoors again. Though a vaccine is on the horizon, it may still be several months before we get back to normalcy.
A lack of novelty and an unstimulating environment may lead to a decline in our cognitive fitness. Much like how a life devoid of physical activity will turn you into a weak and doughy sack of couch potato, not giving the nervous system enough stimulation may turn it into the neurological equivalent. Everyday experiences have the power to enhance or inhibit our brain’s ability to forge new connections and to keep existing ones running smoothly. COVID-19 is so insufferable because it not only causes stress, but it may reduce resilience to stress due to its effect on our environments — and our nervous systems.
But there’s hope. Though many of the riches of our environment may still be off-limits, we can limit the mind-numbing, brain-shrinking effects of an impoverished environment. Here’s how.
When you present a mammal with a novel stimulus — something it has never seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted before — it’ll immediately drop what it’s doing and pay attention to it. This is the orienting response, thought to occur due to the novel stimulus’s potential to be a source of reward, or threat. But the novelty soon wears off, and the spark of interest is replaced with indifference. Without novelty, the brain loses interest in its surroundings.
Novelty is stimulating to the nervous system. If you’ve ever traveled to a truly foreign country, you’ll know what overstimulation with novelty feels like. Stepping off the plane, you’re hit with exotic aromas and hot, muggy air. You make it past the noisy touts luring in the vulnerable, dazzled tourists and jump in a taxi.
After dropping your bags at the hotel, you venture out into a land of unusual architecture. Noisy chattering in an alien tongue fills the air. Signs with cryptic symbols abound. Finding a street cart, you bravely try the local cuisine. Intense and unfamiliar flavours assault your naive taste buds with ingredients you couldn’t begin to decipher. Intoxicated with novelty, you wander around aimlessly until overwhelm turns into exhaustion. Returning to your hotel, you promptly collapse into a deep slumber. Your brain must now forge a lot of new connections.
Novelty has far-reaching effects on our brains: from promoting learning by improving memory encoding in the hippocampus to increasing motivation to explore and try new things by triggering the reward system. Our foraging ancestors’ survival relied on novelty. Those motivated to explore found edible rewards and passed on their novelty-seeking genes. Those who stayed put ran the risk of their food supply running out.
Though COVID-19 currently prohibits us from exploring new, foreign lands, we can still seek out novelty:
- Try some new cuisines, the more exotic the better. If you need some ideas, try recipes from Roger Mooking’s cooking show “Everyday Exotic,” where he takes everyday dishes and using one new ingredient, giving it an exotic twist.
- You may not have any fancy events to go to, but there’s no reason you can’t buy yourself some new threads. Choose colours, designs, and fabrics you wouldn’t normally wear. Make sure to go for environmentally friendly fabrics.
- Jazz up that living space of yours: Breathe life into the lifeless air with foreign plants and cacti. Create a new space in the empty corner of the room by throwing a bean bag down next to a reading lamp. Get a tropical fish tank, and fill it with colourful fish. And if you’re feeling ambitious, you could paint the walls a fresh, new colour. Your brain will thank you later.
Stimulate the senses
When mammals are dark-reared— meaning they have no exposure to light — the visual cortex fails to mature. It remains stuck in immaturity until the visual senses are stimulated. But when you expose these mammals to light, the visual part of the brain comes to life, quickly forging the necessary connections that had been missing. Sensory stimulation wakes up our nervous system and gives it a reason to start forging new connections.
It might even be able to reverse aging of the senses. When we get older, the sensory receptors in our skin age and become less sensitive to touch. But one fascinating study showed that all it takes to reverse this is a bit of stimulation. Elderly participants were fitted with a device that applied mild electrical stimulation to their hand. After just three hours of stimulation, the experimenters were able to reverse 30 years of age-related sensory loss.
But too much sensory stimulation can be overwhelming, even stressful. We need to stimulate our senses enough to keep them working well but not so much that it becomes unpleasant. The ideal dose varies between individuals, with extroverts preferring more stimulation than introverts. Extroverts even perform better in noisy environments compared to quiet ones. Those with ADHD also seem to prefer more stimulation. We tend to know when our senses are understimulated (when the silence is deafening) or overstimulated (when you feel like hiding in a quiet room).
Multisensory stimulation rooms, commonly used in patients with severe dementia, have immediate positive effects on mood and behaviour. They’re designed to provide the brain with just the right amount of sensory stimulation — calming yet gently stimulating. They achieve this with low lighting, relaxing background music, multicoloured water columns with hypnotizing bubbles, aromatherapy diffusers, fiber-optic cables that change colour, and textured balls to play with.
In the age of Amazon Prime, you can turn your home environment into a multisensory paradise in no time. Though you might not want to install ceiling-high bubble tubes in your living room, there are lots of easier and cheaper options. Here are some suggestions for each sense:
Play as Much as Possible
Many of the benefits of an enriched environment are thought to be due to opportunities for play. When you put rats in larger cages with other rats, they play with one another constantly. And if you place a toy in there — you’ll have one happy rat. But what about humans?
Play is easy to observe in rats, but we humans are a complex species. We may play in obvious ways, like throwing a ball around, or in less obvious ways, like covertly playing Candy Crush while in the waiting room. How we play also varies from one person to the next. To some it may mean kicking a ball around, but for others it could be stamp collecting. This has made play a hard concept to define for researchers. Though there’s extensive evidence on the benefits of play for brain development in children, there aren’t many studies in adults.
Play is an activity that’s stimulating and engaging. It leads the player to lose awareness of time and place. It provides joy through the process, rather than the outcome, offering respite from a world of outcome-dependent tasks. It takes the seriousness out of life and reminds us that when we’re having fun, little else matters.
Those who play board games experience a myriad of benefits: enhanced cognition, improved motivation, and reduced anxiety, to name a few. One study even found that elderly adults who played board games showed less cognitive decline and less depression than those who didn’t. Other studies on the hot topic of gamification show us that turning something into a game keeps us engaged, speeds up learning, and improves memory.
Now let’s talk about ways of incorporating more play into our COVID-restricted lives. Here are some ideas:
- Balls, frisbees, and other throwables — throwing and catching may look simple, but the brain is hard at work. It must use gross motor skills to position the body, fine motor skills to take aim, and careful judgement to determine the force required to get the ball from A to B. Add to that all the running involved when you realise your partner has no fine motor skills, and you’ve got the perfect combination of mental and physical stimulation.
- If you build it, neuroplasticity will come — whether it’s building an entire city of LEGO blocks or making adorable felt animals, making something for the fun of it is a surefire way to wake up those neurons. Whatever you build, make sure it’s novel and stimulating to the senses in some way — that way you tick all the boxes of an enriched environment.
- Get artistic — work that right hemisphere by picking up a new instrument and learning to play your favourite song. Or get out a paintbrush and unload your emotion onto a canvas. Or if you’re like me and can’t do either, just get a colouring book and go to town on it.
- Good old-fashioned board games — if you’ve got playmates, choose your favourite board game and schedule some time to play. Choose games that challenge your brain in some way. Scrabble for vocabulary. Chess for strategic thinking. Jenga for fine motor coordination. Hungry Hungry Hippos for stress-management skills.
Many countries are beginning to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but restrictions are likely to continue for several months. If we’re to come out the other side as healthy, happy, and cognitively fit as we were before this nightmare started, we need to do whatever we can to stimulate our brains.
Unlike those poor lab rats confined to small cages, we have the ability to change our environments for the better. So what are you waiting for?