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Javier Bernacer Maria,
, researcher at group Mente-Cerebro , Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), University of Navarra

The effects of the pandemic on our habits and beliefs

Sat, 16 May 2020 17:19:00 +0000 Posted in The Conversation

The pandemic has changed the world. Even more: it has changed each of us. We do not yet know to what extent it has done so, but we all have the experience that it has turned upside down what philosophers throughout history have considered our "second nature": habits.

From the time the alarm goes off until we put the cell phone back on the bedside table at night, there are behaviors that we tend to repeat fluently and that make our home, work and leisure life easier.

When we wake up, we usually repeat a set of actions that make the start of the day more pleasant, and that help us to be efficient in order to dedicate ourselves to other more interesting things. At work, we have an environment -including the cup of coffee next to the keyboard- that helps us financial aid to overcome the "friction", term employee by the expert Wendy Wood, at the beginning of our daily tasks.

Between one place and another, habits are also present: driving involves a series of repeated actions that improve with internship. Regarding leisure, physical activity - going for a run, going to the gym, meeting up with friends to play a game - playing an instrument or even reading are also habitual behaviors that are deeply embedded in us.

And suddenly, our second nature has had its foundations shaken.

Shaken habits
But what is a habit? It is a disposition to act in a certain way, which we normally acquire by repeating actions that we find rewarding. According to our application of the Aristotelian notion of habit to today's psychology and neuroscience, there are good habits that help us do certain behaviors better and better, and actually enjoy them more, while there are bad habits that make our behavior more rigid, even uncontrollable, and far removed from enjoyment. As C. S. Lewis in the devil Screwtape's pen, in his letter XXV, the bad habit is the increasing craving for decreasing pleasure.

Fortunately, most of our habits are not uncontrollable, and our second nature is plastic, even if it hurts when it starts to warp. How do we change our habits effectively? For one thing, it is much easier to replace one habit with another than to try to acquire a habit from scratch-or to eliminate an undesirable habit.

On the other hand, for a habit to be good, that is, flexible and improve our behavior, it has to be directed to an end; moreover, a good habit will help us to reach increasingly complex ends, which at first seemed unattainable.

Searching for proximate ends
Therefore, if we want to acquire a good habit, it is important to aim at the nearest ends so that, once achieved, these become the means to achieve more complex ends. Having a distant end in mind is fine, but we should not become obsessed with achieving it, because if we do not do so, we will become discouraged.

For example: if we want to do physical exercise during confinement, because the gym is closed and we detest running, it will be of little use to set weight loss as goal .

Let's aim to do ten minutes of physical activity today: not "a day", but today. Let's arrange an environment that helps us, that reduces friction: a fixed time, with music, having ready the sports clothes and the plan that we have found on the Internet.

We will do it and it will be rewarding just for having done it, and that will make it easier to repeat it tomorrow; but tomorrow's goal will be the same: ten minutes of physical activity today. When this is consolidated, we will be able to consider more complex goals: to increase the time, the effort, or, now, to lose weight.

The brain changes with each of our actions
And at the brain level, how is this possible? Any change in our behavior is associated with a change in our brains. In the past, there was a neuromyth that some people still believe, and that is that our brains do not change.

This is totally false, and programs of study of all subject demonstrate that the brain, no matter the age, changes with each of our actions. It is true that the capacity for change is greater in childhood or adolescence, but part of it is preserved throughout our lives.

Neurons, the cells that generate and transmit the nerve impulse, can establish new contacts with other neurons, strengthen their connections, or stretch and shrink their branches.

These cellular events are the biological basis of the training of new habits. Both aspects, the biological and the mental - in the case of habits, the disposition to perform a certain subject of actions - are equally important, and form an inseparable whole: the mind-brain system.

Beliefs, according to Ortega
But the effects of the pandemic may have gone beyond that, crossing our second nature to reach the "continent of our life," in the words of Ortega y Gasset: beliefs.

The Spanish philosopher, in Ideas and beliefs, affirms that the latter are not ideas that we have, but ideas that we are: "They are very radical beliefs that are confused for us with reality itself -they are our world and our being".

Narrowing the definition for its study in the experimental sciences, a belief is a statement that we would be willing to take for true, even if we were presented with extremely solid evidence against it.

Habits and beliefs go hand in hand, as they predispose our way of acting and understanding the world, which are inseparable. A year before the start of the pandemic, and in partnership with Harvard University, a team of researchers asked more than a hundred volunteers to show their Degree adherence to a series of statements. This allowed us to study the belief system with network theory.

With the arrival of the pandemic, we have raised again this survey-anonymous and with an estimated time of five minutes-, both at the beginning of the confinement and at the beginning of the de-escalation. In this way, we hope to test whether the COVID-19 crisis has affected social, scientific or transcendental beliefs that seemed untouchable a few months ago.

Nothing is impossible for our mind-brain system.
In conclusion, the pandemic is changing us. On the one hand, it has forced us to consciously change habits we had well established, with the cerebral impact that this entails; on the other hand, it may have changed our beliefs about the world, altering our way of approaching reality. Far from being alarmed, we should be optimistic about these changes: nothing is impossible for our mind-brain system.

The pandemic is an opportunity to find ends to which to direct ourselves, which in principle should be easy to achieve, and which will soon become means to achieve more complex ends. Thus, almost without realizing it, we will have acquired good habits that will help us grow as human beings. In the same way, our experiences can convince us that, beyond conflicting ideologies, there are beliefs that should emerge strengthened from this crisis: respect for others and care for the weakest and most defenseless.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation