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Lessons from Covid-19: Could a New Normal Lead to Better Brains, Bodies, and Societies?

By Karen Rommelfanger and Alvaro Fernandez

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In the age of Covid-19, what is the new normal? How many of us have been experiencing the heady cocktail of confusion, anxiety, and even some surprising moments of respite from our recent-past busy rise-and-grind, hustle culture routines? 

Our social media feeds are filled with urgent and often conflicting imperatives to change our routines and to direct increased vigilance: 
  • don’t touch your face, wash our hands-don’t be obsessive though;  
  • cover our coughs with your elbow-not a tissue; 
  • social distance-with no interaction, or maybe with some interaction, just watch for your local businesses as you’re sheltering-in; and 
  • no matter what, don’t panic—you should be scared, but please, stay calm. 

The Covid-19 reminds us that also that the problems and solutions for a virus like this will not be found exclusively in a laboratory. A pandemic poses significant rippling societal effects, and the global mood has been affected. 

To some extent, our situation isn’t really new with a predictable trajectory as medical historian Charles Rosenberg is quoted here in the recent New England Journal of Medicine article. “Epidemics start at a moment in time, proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, follow a plot line of increasing revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure.” 

We’re in a moment of ‘increasing revelatory tension’ where, for the first time for many, we will see in full view, how our complacence with the inertia of the status quo both as individuals and a human culture has taken us far off the course we might internally say we value. 

As a neurotech ethicist and a neurotech trends researcher, we spend our days thinking about how technologies represent society’s and its constituents’ values, desires, and views of human flourishing. These are scientific crafts embedded in culture and are cultural tools to navigate human life.

Technology is a social mirror and Covid-19 is making us take a long hard look at ourselves. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay

We’ve all seen the worst parts of technology, especially digital technology use and its manifestations of social media stories full of fear and panic-feeding messages, many tales loosely based on legitimate sources. 

These messages erode one of our most precious and essential human resources right now that are essentially for weathering the Covid storm: our mental health. 

As the World Health Organization puts it, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” There are numerous lists and graphics for physical hygiene, social distancing, but these recommendations exist in a gap in perhaps what will be most likely get us through and to recover from it, mental health fitness. What about our mental hygiene habits? 

Could Covid-19 generate a mental health fitness revolution? 

Depression and anxiety have been noted as defining features of our times, and that was before Covid-19. This is evinced with the explosion of anxiety consumerism, weighted blankets, fidget devices, you name it-none of which actually address the underlying infrastructure that even now, pushes us toward an obscenity of optimizing productivity while working remotely, running pop-up homeschools, and caring for family under incredibly duress of unusual circumstances. 

While uncomfortable, our moment now is one of “revelatory tension” that is a healthy tension; we have an opportunity to question old habits and establish a new normal. 

Covid has brought forth is an accelerated use of online tools, and dare we suggest an opportunity to have a healthier digital lifestyle. While we are all familiar with touted concerns of the deterioration of social life with social media; we may now have an opportunity to explore the full breadth of opportunities for meaningful social connection. There have been numerous offerings of live musical and theatre performances, educational tools, and greater experimentation with telehealth. 

This may also be a time to be creative with mental health tools, more advanced virtual reality for enhancing telehealth, greater offerings for those who seem especially vulnerable to poor mental health such as the elderly and teenagers. This is also a time to review our use of mental health tools and apps and our expectations of them. Apps cannot magically grant wellness, sleep, or an end to poor mental health. They are tools that we must learn to use with wisdom. 

Our Global Future Council on Digital Technologies and Mental Health, of which the authors are members, has put forward opportunities a series of ethical guidelines for empowering societies

Image courtesy of Karen Rommelfanger and Alvaro Fernandez

In response to Covid-19, many developers are offering free online tools, they can be used as a means–not an end–or self-reflections, developing better sleep, exercise, and self-care habits for better mental health. And cultivating these habits in this disrupted moment of hustle culture, can have significant effects not just apparent with changes in mood, but, over the long-term, with physiological changes we may not be aware of such as changes in the immune system which has been revolutionizing how might tackle mood disorders. 

Of course, this is a timely reminder for some lo-fi solutions. Perhaps one of the most underutilized tools for mental health is exercise. Going outside and appreciating a slower pace. Or even for those of us who are always planning for the future, to take time to be in the moment. When the Covid-19 climate constantly, rapidly evolving, there’s really no alternative but to be more flexible and have acceptance of what we can do with the now (and not what we cannot do). 

And finally, many employers, not all by far, are finally doing what we all should have been doing—recommending folks stay home when they are sick and providing pay and accommodations for those who do. And if you are part of the privileged group, not to feel like a guilty martyr, but instead to think about how to advocate for those who are hurting from the power imbalances in their lives. 

In the end, what will get us through Covid-19? Not just physical hygiene, but mental and even moral hygiene.

An adaptation of this piece appears in the World Economic Forum Agenda here:

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of SharpBrains, an independent market research firm tracking applied neuroscience. A recognized public speaker, he has been quoted by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Reuters, and Associated Press, among others. Alvaro is the Editor-in-chief of seminal market reports on Pervasive Neurotechnology and Digital Brain Health, and co-author of the books The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness and El Cerebro Que Cura. He is a member of the Global Future Council on Technology for Mental Health run by the World Economic Forum, and a member of the Global Teacher Prize’s Judging Academy. 

Dr. Karen S. Rommelfanger received her PhD in neuroscience and received postdoctoral training in neuroscience and neuroethics. Her research explores how evolving neuroscience and neurotechnologies challenge societal definitions of disease and medicine. Dr. Rommelfanger is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the Neuroethics Program Director at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, and Senior Associate Editor at the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience. She is dedicated to cross-cultural work in neuroethics is co-chair of the Neuroethics Workgroup of the International Brain Initiative. She is an appointed member to the NIH BRAIN Initiative Neuroethics Working Group and is ambassador to the Human Brain Project’s Ethics Advisory Board. She also serves as Neuroethics Subgroup member of the Advisory Committee to the Director at NIH for designing a roadmap for BRAIN 2025. She recently was appointed to the Global Futures Council on Neurotechnology of the World Economic Forum. A key part of her work is fostering communication across multiple stakeholders in neuroscience. As such she edits the largest international online neuroethics discussion forum The Neuroethics Blog and she is a frequent contributor and commentator in popular media such as The New York Times, USA Today and The Huffington Post.

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. & Fernandez A. (2020). Lessons from Covid-19: Could a New Normal Lead to Better Brains, Bodies, and Societies? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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