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Is COVID Lowering our Intelligence?

August 20, 2021

How’s THAT for a clickbait title?

In a previous post, I addressed the issue of learning loss – the potential for kids in particular to fall behind due to the COVID restrictions and online learning limitations.  In that post, I argued that learning loss is not really something to be too concerned about because it will largely have an impact upon all learners.  The issue of intellectual losses due to COVID exposure and treatment, however, is an entirely different issue.  

Unfortunately, there is emerging evidence that, while in its early stages, suggests that those who recover from COVID are at risk for demonstrating lower levels of intelligence, depending in part on how serious the symptoms were and how invasive treatments were.  A study published in EClincial Magazine, a digest associated with The Lancet, indicated that there were significantly lower scores on a measure of cognitive functioning among those who had been identified as having COVID, with lower scores among those who had experienced more invasive treatments (i.e. intubation) than more basic approaches to treatment (i.e. isolating. quarantining).  The authors concluded that “COVID-19 infection is associated with cognitive deficits that persist into the recovery phase.”  (p.7).

Of course, this research is only a preliminary finding that has many limitations, the primary of which is the lack of a solid pretest/ posttest model (so it is difficult to say if the lower intelligence scores were a result of COVID, treatment,  fever, other pre existing features, including lower intellectual functioning prior to COVID exposure, and so on).  But if there is even some degree of accuracy in these preliminary findings, we should be very concerned.  Even a small decrease in intelligence is worthy of concern, especially if we see similar drops in children and adolescents who recover from COVID.  

Many of us have experienced brain fog in these latter days of the pandemic.  Difficulties with concentration and focus, word-finding problems, forgetting small and significant details.  Part of this fog could be attributed to our social isolation – why work our brains if there is no one really around to make us do so!  But if we look at what happens to our thinking abilities when we are isolated, fatigued, lacking in direction, under stress, and all sorts of other characteristics consistent with the pandemic and associated restrictions, the results are not comforting.  Our cognitive functioning becomes less focused and – not unlike our bodies – when the brain is not regularly exercised, it can lose its functionality and become a bit “flabby.”

Many of us have felt bored through the pandemic.  Glaring mindlessly at Tiger King and other barely-there media is akin to a diet of Oreos and fruit punch.  It fills the hole, but is not satisfying.  Being bored creates a situation in which creativity is born and can be nurtured.  But even the creativity associated with boredom has its limits. We seek out engagement.  Without active engagement, our brains become lethargic and our thinking becomes muddled.  And our brains seek out stimulation.

Our brains are covered in all sorts of folds and creases as a result of a simple biological fact – the surface area of our brain exceeds our cranial (skull) capacity.  Essentially, our brain surface is about the size of a flattened pillow case and if you had to fit a pillowcase into a human skull (and I’d REALLY not want to know why someone would want to do that!), you would have to crumple it up, and the pillowcase would be all wrinkly and covered in folds and creases.  Just like our brains.  So, the human brain is really wrinkly, while the brain of a cat, for instance, is very smooth – cats are fine, but not really intelligent in the same way humans are.  So, this is a case of it’s not how big your brain is, it’s about how crumpled-up it is!  And the way to make use of those wrinkles is to keep the brain active.  

So, though these (hopefully) latter days of the pandemic, it is important to keep our brains occupied and engaged, if only to prevent any potential cognitive decline.  Here are some ideas to try:

  • Board Games
  • Reading
  • Talking with others
  • Taking a class (online, video)
  • Learn a skill (a musical instrument, cooking, art, etc.)
  • Watch and discuss film
  • Feed your brain – lots of good protein
  • Sleep – sleep when you need to, where possible
  • Keep basic stimulating games and activities in check
  • Exercise

Overall, feed your brain a varied and healthy diet of engaging input to keep it active and learning, the best defences against potential decline.

Copyright Macdonald Psychology Group 2021

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