The Three Psychological Dilemmas of Coronavirus and the Cognitive Impact of Smart Working and Distance Learning

Living in the time of the coronavirus means experiencing not only a global health emergency but also extreme psychological stress that puts a strain on our identity and our relationships.

The coronavirus forces us to manage three different psychological dilemmas simultaneously: the stress of the disease, the disappearance of places, and the crisis of the sense of community.

More, the coronavirus is forcing a significant portion of students and workers to reorganize their daily activities to accommodate the needs of distance learning and agile work (smart working). The daily use of these technologies has a significant impact on many identity and cognitive processes, including social and professional identity, leadership, intuition, mentoring, and creativity.

The First Dilemma: The Stress of the Disease

The first dilemma is evident. Coronavirus generates anxiety, for the potential risk that it causes for us and/or our loved ones. And this sense of risk is enhanced by the continuous flow of often conflicting information that reaches us through social networks.

This situation activates in our brain the “attack-escape-freezing” reactions, a series of changes in the limbic and hormonal system that normally help us manage and successfully overcome possible threats.

However, in the case of coronavirus, the situation does not last for only a few minutes and is not easily manageable either with the attack or with the defense. The consequences are twofold.

On the one hand, the hyperactivation of the hormonal system generates irritability and insomnia, as well as a continuous sense of anxiety and insecurity.

On the other, if attack and escape do not work, the only alternative is the freezing that leads the subject to stop and wait, with significant effects on daily activities and the risk of spending the weeks sitting on the sofa waiting for a solution that never comes

The Second Dilemma: The Disappearance of Places

The second is less evident. In fact, one of the most significant but less obvious effects of quarantine is the disappearance of places from our daily experience. From a psychological point of view, a “place” is a closed space, a space delimited by borders, whereas “place attachment” is the cognitive-emotional bond to a meaningful space, a common phenomenon observed across cultures that produces significant psychological benefits.

As shown by neuroscientific research, which led May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser in 2014 to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, within our brain there are different neurons—the “place cells” and the “border cells”—which are activated when we occupy a certain position in the environment and when we identify a border within it.

What are these neurons for? Apparently, to manage our autobiographical memory: we define who we are through the memory of people and events that occurred within the different places we frequent. We are students because we go to school or university, we are workers because we go to the company, we are fans because we go to the stadium, and so on.

Quarantine is destroying our sense of place. On the one hand, we can no longer go to the places that characterized our daily life and made sense of our identity.

On the other, even the home is no longer a place because it has stopped having boundaries for those who live there. Being able to have your own space to work or go to the bathroom becomes a challenge, especially when there are young children in a small apartment.

Yet, without our spaces we lose both the sense of identity and our autobiographical memory. The days all seem the same and at the end of the day we feel empty and without fire.

The Third Dilemma: The Crisis of the Sense of Community

The third is a direct consequence of the second. As psychosocial research has shown, communities are born in places, spaces delimited by borders. But if the places are no longer there, the sense of community also disappears.

On the one hand, without the office, the workplace, the school, the pub, even the people we find inside them are more difficult to reach and the bonds weaken.

On the other hand, even families who often have to live in spaces without borders stop being communities and become a group of individuals.

The result is that the ability to share and accept one another diminishes, leading to an increase in conflict.

The Impact of Smart Working and Distance Learning

Finally, the coronavirus is forcing a significant portion of students and workers to reorganize their daily activities using distance learning and agile work (smart working).

As we discussed in this recent paper, distance learning and smart working impact the following three pillars that reflect the organization of our brain and are at the core of school and office experiences: (a) the learning/work happens in a dedicated physical place; (b) the learning/work is carried out under the supervision of a boss/professor; and (c) the learning/work is distributed between team members/classmates.

In particular, the use of videoconferencing affects the functioning of Global Positioning System neurons (neurons that code our navigation behavior), mirror neurons, self-attention networks, spindle cells, and interbrain neural oscillations.

These effects have a significant impact on many identity and cognitive processes, including social and professional identity, leadership, intuition, mentoring, and creativity. In conclusion, just moving typical office and learning processes inside a videoconferencing platform, as happened in many contexts during the COVID-19 pandemic, can in the long term erode corporate cultures and school communities.