It seems ages since we started referring to life in these “uncertain times”. For months now, our routines have been disrupted and we’ve been forced to adapt. Anecdotally, one major consequence is a state of mental fatigue. It feels hard to concentrate for any length of time, as if we’re in a collective state of near-constant distraction.
“It felt like I had a mental block preventing me from focusing on the page,” says writer and book lover Sophie Vershbow, who captured the mood early in the pandemic when her tweet about “not being able to concentrate enough to read a book” was liked more than 2,000 times. She’s not alone; do a quick search and you’ll find an avalanche of articles on people who can’t concentrate, the prevalence of ‘brain fog’ and different ways to ‘hack your concentration’.
Of course, much of this subjective feeling of mental distraction comes down to the practicalities of life now. For many people, most notably working parents, the sudden switch to home working has meant an intensification of work/life conflict; it’s tricky to focus on a spreadsheet as your kids wrestle for the TV remote control. But it feels like there’s more to it than that. Even when work is finished for the day and the kids are in bed, it’s hard to find any focus to escape into a novel or box-set.
There’s a psychological theory, originally applied in the context of learning, that might help explain why living in the age of Covid-19 may have turned our minds to soup. It’s called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), and it was first developed by the Australian educational psychologist John Sweller. Put simply, CLT characterises our minds as information processing systems. When we’re working on a problem, especially an unfamiliar one, we depend on our “working memory”, which is very limited both in its capacity and the length of time it holds information. The less familiar you are with a task, the more you depend on your working memory to help juggle the relevant information; in contrast, when you’re an expert, most of what you need to know is stored in long-term memory and you can complete the task on auto-pilot.
New tasks, new stress levels
Cognitive Load Theory provides a useful framework for understanding the different ways the pandemic could be playing havoc with your mental function.
First, by forcing you into new routines, it’s robbed you of the ability to do things on auto. Take a work meeting; before, you would just have turned up and joined in the discussion, but now if you’re working remotely you have to fire up your video-conferencing software, worry about your WiFi, adjust your communication to the time lag and so forth. The same applies to domestic challenges too, like ordering your groceries online instead of shopping in person. These adaptations force you out of auto-pilot and draw on your limited working memory capacity. In the jargon of CLT, the intrinsic “cognitive load” of much of what you do has increased. You’re spending more of your life having to think deliberately and consciously, more like a novice than expert, which is exhausting in itself.