Have you ever been forced to change your password, and then at the very next opportunity entered the old password instead of the new? Or have you walked home and then realized you didn’t remember any of the journey? When something is familiar our brains can put themselves on autopilot — it’s their way of saving energy.
Much in 2020 has not been familiar, or normal. Our brains have had to remain switched on for longer than usual, navigating new ways of taking care of family, of working (hopefully), of shopping for groceries,… of electing presidents. It takes time, and neural energy to build new habits. When you’re trying to build so many new habits all at once it can feel overwhelming; there is only so much new information and so much change we can absorb, and only so quickly, before we’re totally knackered. 2020 has, quite literally, been mentally exhausting.
Our brains represent about 2% of our body’s mass but consume about 20% of the energy. Thinking burns a lot of precious fuel so our brains have developed ways to save power. As we experience the same thing over and over our brain realizes it can afford to devote fewer calories to the matter. They have become so good at carving these neural grooves of expectation they can even fill in the gaps with what they expect to see, even when that is not what is actually there. It’s why you can esaliy raed wrods taht are splet inocerrtcly. Of course it helps to have the first and last letters to frame your expectations but after that your brains figure things out based on past experience (as opposed to future experience, presumably).
Our brains aren’t just good at good at finding patterns, it upsets them when they can’t establish one. We experience psychological discomfort in ambiguity and uncertainty. There is even research to support what many of us have felt in our gut, the notion that our brains prefer the certainty of bad news over the uncertainty of potentially good news. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been stood, waiting on a platform for a train, frustrated by a blank indicator board — it’s just plain annoying to be unsure whether I have about a 15 minute wait, which I would use to read my book, or a mere 4 minutes, which I would also devote to reading my book. The sense of relief is palpable when the indicator board flashes into life and tells…