The Great Reopening Of The Mind

The movie ‘Three Identical Strangers’ (2018) tells a true but nonetheless fantastic story about triplets separated at birth by a team of mad scientists implementing an experiment in the 60s: Each of the newborns is put in a family of a different social class. Will the three children develop in a similar way driven by nature notwithstanding their different environment? Or will the differing ways in which they are nurtured win the day? The experiment was inconclusive. To this day, the nature-versus-nurture discussion is subject to an endless, passionate debate that pervades many fields: biology, health, criminology, philosophy, politics… and leadership.

There may be good natural born leaders, yet there is no such thing as great ones. From a leadership point of view, it would not be wise to leave much to nature as it has the bad tendency to trick decision makers. A fair dose of nurturing is required to gain the ability to sail through a long list of cognitive biases, a broad selection of which is nicely illustrated in a single picture available here. In this respect, achieving ‘cognitive fitness’ is required to make the best possible decisions most of the time, fix problems in a lasting manner, manage stress, and grow. This mental state can only be reached through awareness and training.

Next to the ability to reason logically, memory is an important contributor to cognitive fitness. It refers to the ability to capture, encode, store and retrieve information in an effective manner. Like reason, memory has its natural vulnerabilities. In particular, it tends to be selective. Three phenomenon can be observed: Positive confabulation, when a negative (unpleasant) past experience is turned into a positive one; positive amnesia when a negative experience is forgotten; and positive delusion, when a positive memory is invented. Fundamentally, human beings tend to remember the past in a more positive way than it factually is as discussed in ‘Selective Memory and Motivated Delusion: Theory and Experiment (2013).

What have been the implications of mobility restrictions for individuals’ cognitive fitness? It is too early to fully appreciate them, but the first signs suggest that they have been rather devastating, as discussed for example in this Lancet Psychiatry survey in the UK or in this Coronavirus stress study from the Basel University in Switzerland. Society will undoubtedly pay a heavy psychological price for the lockdown policies as further explained in this World Economic Forum article. It does not take an expert to observe that the lack of mobility over an extended period of time has taken a toll on the capacity to think well as some form of ‘cabin fever kicks in. My personal experience suggests as much: as I flew to Switzerland and back this week after two months of relative immobility, new, valuable perspectives emerged right, front and center and liberated my mind.

What will be left of the lockdown policies at the individual level in the future might be fond memories thanks to the strange way memory works. But hopefully the implications of mobility restriction policies for the human psyche and their related costs to society will be thoroughly analyzed and not forgotten so that they be integrated in any future response to a pandemic.

For now, I believe there is value in acknowledging that the last few weeks have been more taxing on the brain and the quality of decision making processes than generally accepted, and that an important recovery process must be initiated – not only economically but also mentally. What is dubbed ‘The Great Reopening’ when referring to the on-going lowering of mobility restrictions levels can similarly apply to the human mind. Some nurturing is in good order.

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