Traditionally in Easter week, I go to the Lake District for a week of hill-walking with my family and a digital detox [see ‘Eternal non-existence‘ on April 24th, 2019 and ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017]. For the second year in succession, we have had to cancel our trip due to the national restrictions on movement during the pandemic [see ‘Walking and reading during a staycation‘ on April 15th, 2020]. I am still attempting a digital detox but the walking is restricted to a daily circuit of our local park. While Sefton Park is not on the scale of Central Park in New York or Regent’s Park in London, it is sufficiently large that a walk to it, round its perimeter and home again takes us about two hours. It might not be as strenuous as climbing Stickle Pike but it is better than repeatedly climbing the stairs which was the limit of our exercise last year [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau‘ on April 8th, 2020]. We might not be allowed to leave our locality but we can switch off all of our devices, do some off-line reading (see ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014), slow down, breathe our own air (see ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015) and enjoy the daffodils.
For many people Zoom fatigue is very real. It has been studied by Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University [see ‘‘Zoom fatigue’ brought into focus by Stanford study‘ in the FT on February 26th, 2021]. He found that one source of tiredness was the high level of self-evaluation that arises from continually having to look at a video of yourself. Of course, it is easy to fix by choosing not to display your own video on your screen. We all have two egos: one is our subjectivity or the physical sensations registered by our body via our senses; and, the other is our reputation or the reflection of ourselves which forms our social identity [see ‘A reflection on existentialism‘ on December 20th, 2017]. Gloria Orrigi describes this second self as not a simple reflection but one that is ‘warped, amplified, redacted and multiplied in the eyes of others’. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that being constantly exposed to the view of ourselves being seen by others over a video conference raises our level of fatigue as we subconsciously and constantly review the impression being made on others. Orrigi describes our reputation as being like the trail left by snails has they slither over surfaces. Our social interactions with others leave deposits in their minds that become an information trail that we cannot erase and can only partially control. The pandemic has forced many of our social interactions to be via the internet which means they also leave electronic trails over which we have little control and cannot erase; however, we probably worry less about these traces than we do those left in the minds of others. Perhaps that is why our conversations lack spontaneity when conducted via a Zoom call [see ‘Distancing ourselves from each other‘ on January 13th, 2021] or maybe it’s just because it’s very difficult to gossip on a video conference even using the ‘chat’ function. Robin Dunbar has suggested that the real reason language evolved in humans is to allow us to gossip and thus maintain the social cohesion. If we are suffering from a loss of social cohesion caused by a lack of gossip then it is likely our stress levels would be raised causing us further fatigue. So, maybe we should be picking up our phones and calling people for a chat instead of scheduling meetings on Zoom.
The picture is the photograph of me that others see when I switch off my camera in an internet call. It’s a selfie with which I am happy, for the moment anyway.
Robin Dunbar, Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language, London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
Gloria Origgi, Reputation: what it is and why it matters, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.
Last week, the continuation until at least the end of March of the lockdown, which has been in place in England since the start of the year, was announced. Many people are feeling jaded and worn out by the constraints and hardships imposed by the lockdown and are struggling to maintain their well-being and mental health. While others are trying to cope with the direct impact of the coronavirus on themselves and their family and friends. I have written before about the power of writing to transport me away from the pressures of everyday life [see ‘Feeling extraordinary at ease‘ on January 8th, 2020] and to help me order my thoughts [see ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018]. These posts were inspired by reading books by Natalia Ginzburg and Sylvain Tesson. I have just finished reading ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University‘ edited by Odelia Younge in which Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes about ‘times when my mental health was bad…writing became a solace and a friend’. In the context of institutional pressures, racism and exclusion, she describes writing about her feelings to help her to feel and listening to her own voice when nobody else would. I was reading the book to gain an appreciation of the experiences of woman of colour in a university; however, I think Manzoor-Khan’s words are relevant to everyone, especially when we are locked away and can only meet with much of our support networks via our computers and phones. Tim Hayward, in the FT in January 2021, wrote a deeply moving and insightful account of his experience of fighting coronavirus, including ten days on life support, and concludes by reflecting on how writing the article helped him handle the trauma. Of course, you don’t have to write for a newspaper, a book or a blog; although writing for an audience does focus your mind, you can write for yourself or friend and in doing so you can keep learning, take notice of your surroundings, and connect with people which will hit three out of five of the ways to well-being.
Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira & Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, A Fly Girl’s Guide to University, Verve Poetry Press, Birmingham, 2019
Tim Hayward, Covid and me: 10 days on life support, FT Magazine, January 22nd, 2021.
You might have wondered why I used ‘entropy’, and ‘psychological entropy’ in particular, as examples in my post on drowning in information a couple of weeks ago [‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. It was not random. I spent some of the Christmas break catching up on my reading pile of interesting looking scientific papers and one on psychological entropy stimulated my thinking. Psychological entropy is the concept that our brains are self-organising systems in a continual dialogue with the environment which leads to the emergence of a relatively small number of stable low-entropy states. These states could be considered to be assemblies of neurons or patterns of thoughts, perhaps a mindset. When we are presented with a new situation or problem to solve for which the current assembly or mindset is unsuitable then we start to generate new ideas by generating more and different assemblies of neurons in our brains. Our responses become unpredictable as the level of entropy in our minds increases until we identify a new approach that deals effectively with the new situation and we add it to our list of available low-entropy stable states. If the external environment is constantly changing then our brains are likely to be constantly churning through high entropy states which leads to anxiety and psychological stress. Effective leaders can help us cope with changing environments by providing us with a narrative that our brains can use as a blueprint for developing the appropriate low-entropy state. Raising psychological entropy by the right amount is conducive to creativity in the arts, science and leadership but too much leads to mental breakdown.
Hirsh JB, Mar RA, Peterson JB. Psychological entropy: A framework for understanding uncertainty-related anxiety. Psychological review. 2012 Apr;119(2):304
Handscombe RD & Patterson EA, The Entropy Vector: connecting science and business, Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2004.