Brain scientist Dr. Kenichiro Mogi shares insights on how the brain deals with stress during quarantine and how we can remain productive in these difficult times.


How should we cope with change during the pandemic?

When you look at the human brain using different kinds of data, it’s really fascinating. The brain adapts to new situations very quickly, so after an initial stimulus the response gets smaller and smaller with each additional stimulus. The brain gets used to the new situation. That helps us adapt to change. So even though it may seem baseless, we should be confident that our brains can adapt to this new situation.

And of course the pandemic has produced innovations, like teleworking and so forth. We’ve all seen how demand for food delivery has exploded. And the way we think about education is changing too. Instead of everyone learning the same thing together in the classroom, even elementary and middle schools are trying new approaches like distance learning, project-based learning, and active learning.

These innovations are starting to take root even in Japan. There’s an idea called “accelerationism” that says the faster a system gets pushed to its limits, the sooner a new system will emerge to replace it. In a sense, we’re seeing positive example of accelerationism. Changes that should have happened in Japan already are happening in response to the pandemic.

The key thing for your brain in a situation like this is to enjoy the process of change, to embrace the uncertainty that goes with it. There are pathways in our brain that can do this. Take fourteenth-century Europe. The Renaissance began in Florence. After a pandemic there comes a renaissance, a time of cultural innovation when human potential flourishes.

When something like this happens, old certainties can fall away and people start to see what’s most important. Like what does it mean to live? Or what’s the true mission of a business? What are the values we want to promote in society? It’s an opportunity for our brains to grow. If you’re feeling stressed out or frustrated, the best thing you can do is draw a line between the things you can control and the things you can’t, and to focus your efforts on the things you can control without getting anxious about the rest. If we can do that, I’m certain that when this is all over there will be a renaissance in Japan and the world.

What’s your advice for being productive while working from home?

Talking with my friends in creative fields and academia, it’s the people who work most effectively in normal times who are coping the best now. The people who always have a to do list in their minds-Most of my friends are busy people, who meet with people all day
and go out every evening. When that suddenly disappears, the external to-do list disappears with it. Now is a time when we have to make our own to-do lists.

And this is the big division now, between people who can do that, and people who can’t. People who can’t do it tend to work by responding to external requests as they come in. But the most creative and productive people make their own lists and prioritize each item. Then they can build in breaks to go to the convenience store or whatever they need to do to refresh themselves.

The crucial thing is to be able to work autonomously and manage your time and your working environment. It’s a kind of stress test for people’s way of working, for whether they can enjoy this environment where they’re scheduling and managing their own work.

Are there any upsides to isolation?

Normally, in business or school or social life, we value the connections we make with the people around us. But there is another side to work, an internal side, where we can look inside ourselves and strengthen our foundations. This situation can be a chance for brain growth, a chance to come up with new ideas, to access information that’s normally stuck in our temporal lobes and to connect the dots, as Steve Jobs said, so we can be more creative.

I think this period might produce new ideas and innovations that will change Japan and change the world. It’s important to see the bright side.

Video Adapted from「ピンチをチャンスに脳を成長させる方法」by 知見録