Slow to adjust to the pandemic’s ‘new normal’? Don’t worry, your brain’s just learning new skills



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Laura Bradfield, University of Technology Sydney

As COVID-19 lockdowns were introduced, we all suddenly had to find new ways of doing things. Schooling shifted online, meetings moved to Zoom, workplaces brought in new measures and even social events have changed to minimise physical interactions.

Many of us have found it hard to adapt to these transformations in our lives. Our research into memory, learning, and decision-making suggests part of the reason is that, for our brains, the change didn’t simply involve transferring existing skills to a new environment.

More often, our brains are in effect learning entirely new skills, such as how to conduct a meeting while your cat walks across your computer keyboard, or how to work while filtering out the sound of kids yelling in the garden.

However, our research may also offer some reassurance that in time we will come to terms with a new way of life.

How rats learn

Our new research, published in Nature Neuroscience, offers some suggestions about why doing new things can initially be so difficult, especially in a new or changing environment, but gets easier over time. Our findings indicate our surroundings have a changing influence on our choices and actions over time, and our brains process them differently as well.

We taught rats how to perform new actions, such as pressing a lever for food, in one place. Next, we moved them to another room with different wallpaper, flooring, and odours.

We then “asked” them to perform the same actions to receive a reward, but they were no longer able to do so. It was as if the rats needed to recall all the details of the memory of learning the task to perform it correctly, including the seemingly irrelevant ones.

A lab rat peering out of its cage.
Even rats forget new skills when they’re moved to an unfamiliar environment.
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Things were different when we tested the rats again a week later. By this time they could make accurate choices in either environment.

We also found that if we inactivated the hippocampus, the part of the brain that encodes detailed memories of the environment, rats could no longer perform a task they had just learned. However, they could still accurately perform tasks they had learned some time ago.

What this means for people

Our findings suggest that with experience and time, there’s a change in both the psychological mechanisms and the brain mechanisms of learning how to do new things and make choices.

While the hippocampus appears to be crucial for a brief period, it becomes less important as time goes on.

If even details that ultimately prove irrelevant are necessary for us to remember a new skill in the early stages of learning, this may help to explain why new behaviours can be so difficult to learn when our circumstances change. For our brains, working from home may be like learning a whole new job — not just doing the same job in a new place.

But the good news is it gets easier. In the same way rats eventually adapt to a new environment, we humans can learn to work with Zoom calls and interrupting pets.




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These findings may also help us understand conditions in which the hippocampus is damaged, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, as well as psychiatric disorders such as depression and substance abuse. In time, better understanding could lead to insight into how people with such diseases might regain some functionality.

The implications for humans do come with caveats, of course: our study was done in rats, not people. But if you have struggled to adapt to a new way of doing things during this pandemic, we hope that it is of some comfort to know you are not alone. Rats, too, struggle to learn how to do new things in new places — but it does get easier over time.The Conversation

Laura Bradfield, Research Fellow in Behavioural Neuroscience, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Playing with the ‘new normal’ of life under coronavirus




Larissa Hjorth, RMIT University and Sybille Lammes, Leiden University

The COVID-19 pandemic has recalibrated everything: work, life and play. As work, schooling, socialising and play have moved into the digital and the confines of our homes, cities have become spaces for reimagining — especially as new sites for formal and informal play.

Playgrounds — once filled with children, parents, grandparents and animals — now look like crime scenes, with police tape and all. They have become forbidden territories, temporal lieux de memoirs of how we used to play. And as play goes into the home and digital, we are reminded of the importance of non-digital play in how we socialise and innovate.




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As cities get reconfigured under pandemic restrictions, it is an important time to reflect not only on changing practices of work but also of play. What can be adapted and translated into the digital, and what can’t?

Play — as a form of creativity, sociality and innovation — is a crucial skill for future workforces. Play provides possibilities for reimagining the city. It draws out new and different connections between people, things, buildings and places. And playgrounds, rather than being spaces that set boundaries for play and non-play, remind us of the importance of play in the social fabric of healthy cities.

Play and the city

Cities have long been sites for play. Play scholars, urban theorists, designers and creative practitioners, to name a few, have discussed the important role of urban play and urban playgrounds. They show that play in cities has a complex and uneven history.

Movements such as the 1960s Situationist International and the New Games Movement in the early 1970s sought to turn the whole city into a playground for politics, environmentalism and sociality. These movements subverted traditional ideas of playgrounds as designated and separate areas.

Interestingly, we are now living in times that playgrounds have to become internalised in the home, if we have one. And while, for some, videogames have become a substitute for alternative sociality in a time of physical distancing, it does not replace the sensorial experience and learnings of non-digital play.

Playgrounds have long had an important role in representing cultural and social mores, reflecting the relational, political and psychological dimensions of the city. They expose how a society views childhood, control, leisure and space.

For example, in Denmark after the second world war, “junkyard” playgrounds were revolutionary sites for reclaiming urban spaces. Likewise, 1960s Situationist International’s practices such as dérive (drifting) transformed cities like Paris into multisensory playgrounds.




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Such interventionist ways of producing urban playgrounds resonate with urban practices today — such as parkour, which subverts “normal” ways of navigating the city.

Over past decades, artists and designers have explored the city’s “playability”, thus expanding our territories of play and heightening their unevenness. Famous collectives such as Blast Theory transform the city into a theatre of life in which videogames are played through physical streets. Initiatives such as Playable Cities in Bristol, Tokyo and Melbourne (to name a few) demonstrate how urban play can choreograph innovative ways of being in the city that emphasise the social, relational and sensory experiences of urban environments.




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Playing with domestic cartographies

Now our mobility has been limited to domestic postage-stamp size, play is even more salient. As artist Kera Hill’s map poignantly shows, how can we playfully reimagine our habitat?

Artist Kera Hill’s ‘Commuting in Corona Times’.
Kera Hill. Author provided.

What do our creative maps of our “sanity walks” (escaping Zoomlandia for walking on phone “feetings”) say about how cities might be reimagined by foot? How might a city be reimagined playfully via smell or as a playful space for listening and quiet? Or into a playground that celebrates multiculturalism?

Who (still) has the means to move playfully and turn fear and boredom into play? How can play transform mobility practices to celebrate walking rather than cars?




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COVID-19 highlights the unevenness of city geography further, but also shows how we can reimagine play when pushed to the extreme and can (re)connect in hopeful ways. There are lessons to be learnt here. As we go back to the “new normal”, let play help engender our reimagining of cities as future sites for care and social innovation.The Conversation

Larissa Hjorth, Professor of Mobile Media and Games. Director of the Design & Creative Practice Platform., RMIT University and Sybille Lammes, Professor of New Media and Digital Culture and Academic Director, Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS), Leiden University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.