Sometimes I get up in the morning or leave the office after work and forget the world has gone crazy. The sun is still shining, the mountains are just as majestic, birds fly in the sky and the trees are all standing. If I didn’t know better, I could almost believe it’s a day like any other day.
For a moment I forget that I can’t pick up something at the store, meet friends for dinner, go to a movie, look at the new releases in a book store, shop for clothes, or languish in the food section over the newest culinary delights the chef has cooked up for me to taste.
I forget it’s all gone, for now. That it’s not just a badly written horror film I watched last night or a nightmare I can’t shake.
Like most of us, I’m having trouble processing the catastrophic changes around me. Processing the numbers that continue to scroll across the TV screen every night depicting the escalating numbers of infections and deaths. This can’t possibly be real.
I remember watching a show where the lead character was wrapped up in a case that hit close to home. It made her question and think about everything she’d done, and not done, in her life. At one point she has trouble differentiating her life from the case. As she’s sorting through the turmoil and dealing with the painful introspection, a friend tells her a story.
He had read an article about how the brain can be misled by what it thinks it sees. They had participants wear glasses with prisms in them that skewed their vision and made things seem “off”. As a result, every time they went to pick up an item it was just out of reach. It took 3 days for the brain to acclimate to the glasses and make the world right again. When the glasses were removed, the participants experienced the same issue. Everything was just out of sync, causing them to miscalculate where items were in space. Three days later they were back to “normal.”
I actually experienced this when my daughter and I visited a children’s museum years ago. What a strange sensation, knowing the brain can be “tricked” into believing the world has shifted. Then tricked again when returning to “normal.” We looked at a picture 30 feet away that appeared to be “normal”, but up close, had a grotesquely shaped eyeball and missing parts to the nose and mouth. Our brains just “filled in the blanks” to make it right. From a distance the picture looked perfect! The brain is incredibly adept at dealing with changes.
Lose the eyesight in one eye and that side is filled in by what the brain believes should be there. It appears to be surprisingly quick to bend reality when normal perception is disrupted. In one study a stroke patient was experiencing distorted vision after losing the optical pathways from the upper left field. It turned out his mind was striving to compensate for the loss, by stretching what it saw in other fields towards the blank area. So what you or I would see as a square appeared to him as a tall rectangle. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed the part of the brain that had been deprived of the information was taking on data from the adjacent areas to fill in the blanks. Changes such as these can happened almost instantaneously.
It appears the brain does not simply process or filter information, but actively interprets the data and then desperately tries to make sense of it. This shows just how flexible the adult brain can be and its stunning ability to adjust to the moment-to-moment changes we experience in life.
Humans have an incredible ability to survive and persevere. We’re resilient and adaptive. After horrifying disasters we have jumped forward in ways we never thought possible. After world wars we finally understood the need for a world wide pact that refused to let such destruction reoccur. After decades of racial injustice we finally moved into an era that demanded equality for all. We broke free of the forces tying us to Earth and sought what was beyond. For a decade we saw incredible advancements and an understanding that we’re all connected together, what happens on one side of the globe impacts the other- from our health to climate changes, violence, poverty and the economy.
We can no longer isolate our own perceived needs without threatening ourselves and others. We’ve lost far too many lives to this infection. Each is a tragedy- the next one could be someone you love. We are the greatest nation in the world, with the most creative, brilliant and innovative minds. After every disaster a new age of wisdom and goodness has been seen.
I wish we didn’t have to get to the brink and face the abyss before we change paths. But that’s where we are now. I don’t know what the new “normal” will turn out to be but I fervently hope it is a wiser, healthier, safer, more judicious, truthful and kinder one than we are seeing today. A normal based on the realization that only through science, being prepared, disseminating facts and educating the populace, will we succeed and fend off this and any other pandemic in our future.