Lately, many elected officials, community leaders, and public health experts, including the US Surgeon General and World Health Organization, have pointed to the phenomenon of “pandemic fatigue” as a key reason for the recent surge in COVID cases.
What is “pandemic fatigue”? The World Health Organization describes it as “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviors, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions.” Others have more informally described it as people being tired of doing the right thing in terms of COVID risk behaviors.
The term “pandemic fatigue” implies that a little rest or extra effort can move us past the phenomenon. But the concept of “pandemic fatigue” does not capture an incredibly important aspect of our experience--bandwidth exhaustion.
What so many (if not all) of us are experiencing right now goes far beyond simply being tired of doing certain things. As I’ve described before, the changes in behavior that the COVID pandemic has required are extremely challenging for our brains, and our brains have very clear limits in terms of capacity and ability.
The term “pandemic fatigue” does not capture how challenged our brains are right now. What do I mean by that? Well, about 99.9% of what our brains do is automatic—we don’t consciously or actively control it. Only a very small amount—about 100 bits/second, the equivalent of a short sentence—can be under our direct control. This is what “mental bandwidth” refers to.
Doesn’t seem like very much, does it? Especially given how many demands there are on our brains in modern times. So, how do we make it work? Well, our brains might have limited capacity, but they are also incredibly capable of learning. When we learn new things, it requires bandwidth. And more complex or unfamiliar something is, the more bandwidth it requires to learn. However, if something—even something very complex—is generally consistent, then our brains use the learning to create neural pathways that allow us to “automatize” certain brain patterns and behaviors.
Reading is a good example of this. Learning to read is complex and bandwidth-demanding. But as we continue to read, it becomes an automatic behavior—we no longer think about the process of reading; we do it automatically. We may use bandwidth to understand and interpret what we are reading, but the actual process of reading is automatic.
We create these automatic, neural pathways in our brains for many of our day-to-day behaviors. Our habits and routines are ways that we shift things to automatic, so that we can save that precious mental bandwidth for the more novel, complex, or inconsistent brain demands that arise.
One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been the loss of brain routines. So many things that our brains did automatically before, are now bandwidth-demanding—getting our kids to school in the morning, grocery shopping, casual connections with friends and family. And in addition to this loss of routines, it has been extremely difficult for us to create new brain routines. We might get used to doing something, but creating a new neural pathway takes consistency and time—anywhere from 10 weeks to 6 months of consistent “practice” to really etch in those pathways.
This means that we are nearly always bandwidth-exhausted—we don’t have enough bandwidth to be successful at all the things we are trying to do.
This is beyond “fatigue.” We are in a very challenging situation, with extremely limited brain resources.
So, what can we do? For one, it is important to try to limit the things that are draining our bandwidth. This means we want to take care of our physical and mental health as best we can. We can also avoid situations where automatic behaviors are going to put us at risk. This means we may need to avoid gatherings and other places where people are less likely to follow COVID-safe behaviors.
Finally, our community leaders and elected officials can play an important role in creating environments that promote COVID-safe behaviors. If our environments and circumstances encourage COVID-safe behaviors, then we need less bandwidth to follow those behaviors. In addition, financial uncertainties are a huge bandwidth drain, so anything that can be done to support the financial well-being of individuals right now, will free up considerable bandwidth.
Bandwidth exhaustion is widespread right now. It makes informed decision-making extremely challenging. To make a meaningful impact in people’s behaviors right now, we must clearly recognize the role of bandwidth limits and bandwidth exhaustion, and take steps—individually and as communities—that will promote safer behaviors, and reduce the spread of COVID-19.