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Three responses to the COVID lockdown (according to a recent King's College London study)

Coping with COVID-19: A recent UK poll shows there are three major responses to lockdown, but how did you cope with the lockdown as we look back? And what does this tell us about how your brain works?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D for the Harfield Village Newspaper, Cape Town.

According to a poll carried out by King’s College London in April 2020 - involving 2,250 respondents - there were three main responses to the COVID lockdown: acceptance, suffering and resistance (Duffy & Allington, 2020). These different responses were distinguished by the level of support for the lockdown and compliance with the measures, how people felt they coped, the extent to which they followed official rules and by their expectations about how things would look in the future. Accepters were mostly male, around the age of 50 who tended to hold conservative views (South African equivalent loosely ANC). Sufferers were mostly female, around the age of 44 with no strong political views. Those who resisted the lockdown were mostly male, significantly younger on average at age 29 and tended to hold labour views (loosely equivalent to the DA). Accepting and suffering groups accounted for about 45% of the UK population respectively, whereas resistance was in the minority, at about 10%.

Accepters say they followed the lockdown rules almost all the time and didn’t feel particularly disturbed by it (e.g. they didn’t lose sleep or feel anxious or depressed). Interestingly though, accepters didn’t believe that life would return to normal any time soon, they seemed to put their trust in the government, and spent less time compared to the other two groups checking the internet or social media for updates on coronavirus.

Sufferers however did report feeling much more anxious and depressed than the other two groups since lockdown was introduced and had worse sleeping patterns. They tended to follow the lockdown rules completely – often more than the other groups – and supported the lockdown measures. However, this group didn’t trust the government, believing that it acted too slowly, and that it used misinformation. Suffers were likely to check the internet or social media daily for updates on coronavirus.

Resisting people only complied with the lockdown rules 50% of the time and did not support the measures imposed by the government, believing that too much fuss was being made. In fact, these people would often secretly go against official guidance, such as meeting up with friends outside the home or going outside during curfew. And this group were much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, such as the coronavirus being created in a lab and deliberately spread. This group checked the internet or social media for updates on the virus much more often than the other two groups.

What do these responses to the lockdown tell us about differences in how our brains function to influence our behaviour? Research suggests that there are three types of conformity behaviour in any given population: compliance, identification and internalisation. Compliance is when we pretend to go along with things but really, we resist them. Identification is when we partly comply with the rules but then change our minds back to our original beliefs when in private. Internalisation, however, is when we fully – both in public and in private – accept the rules – even when the norm changes. And this is what we have seen throughout lockdown across the world.

People who tend to accept rapidly changing rules imposed by their government, tend to have unwavering, deeply held beliefs in tradition and power. Such people are likely to have internalised beliefs about authority that contribute to their sense of self, which can often reflect in increased ventromedial prefrontal activity. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is linked to self-representation, control of emotion, reward and goal-oriented behaviour, and is associated with religiosity. In the suffering group are people who try –but struggle – to accept rules imposed on them, have difficulties with emotion regulation and are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. This is represented in the brain as reduced dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation and increased anterior cingulate cortex/amygdala activation. These brain regions are linked to cognitive control and emotional arousal, respectively. Finally, those who resist the lockdown rules are perhaps the least emotionally influenced, because they are already engaged in high emotional responses to the environment – typical of the younger group who constituted those who resisted lockdown. Additional societal changes seem to overburden an already-overloaded prefrontal executive control system in the younger brain. And since an overburdened prefrontal cortex is costly for the brain’s energy reserves, a choice has to be made between behaviours that are associated with having a strong peer-group identity, such as flouting lockdown rules by continuing to socialise with friends, or behaviours that represent parental control, such as adhering to societal rules.

With these ideas in mind, in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand we are currently testing how cognitions and emotions function across the three groups that respond so differently to lockdown rules. Thankfully President Cyril Ramaphosa has now lifted the lockdown restrictions to level 1 – but think about how you coped with the lockdown measures, and what it might tell you about how your brain functions!

Have a wonderful time enjoying the relaxed lockdown Harfielders but remember to continue adhering to the rules (face masks, social distancing) that keep us all safe!

Dr Samantha Brooks is a UK neuroscientist in Harfield Village, specialising in the neural correlates of impulse control from eating disorders to addiction. For more information you can contact Samantha at: drsamanthabrooks.com


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