Same goes for Tuesday yoga class, Friday date night, Sunday church services, monthly book clubs and annual holidays. We may associate these activities with achieving a goal — health, friendship, education, spiritual growth — but the unwavering regularity and ritualized way with which we go about them, even down to our tendency to stake out the same spot in yoga class or sit in the same pew at church, speak to our need to minimize surprise and exert control.
Routines and rituals also conserve precious brainpower. It turns out our brains are incredibly greedy when it comes to energy consumption, sucking up 20 percent of calories while accounting for only 2 percent of overall body weight. When our routines are disrupted, we have to make new predictions about the world — gather information, consider options and make choices. And that has a significant metabolic cost.
Dr. Friston said that our brains, when uncertain, can become like overheated computers: “The amount of updating you have to do in the face of new evidence scores the complexity of your processing, and that can be measured in joules or blood flow or temperature of your brain.” That exertion, combined with the primordial sense of threat, produces negative emotions like fear, anxiety, hopelessness, apprehension, anger, irritability and stress. Hello, Covid-19.
Our brains are literally overburdened with all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Not only is there the seeming capriciousness of the virus, but we no longer have the routines that served as the familiar scaffolding of our lives. Things we had already figured out and relegated to the brain’s autopilot function — going to work, visiting the gym, taking the kids to school, meeting friends for dinner, grocery shopping — now require serious thought and risk analysis.
As a result, we have less bandwidth available for higher order thinking: recognizing subtleties, resolving contradictions, developing creative ideas and even finding joy and meaning in life.
“It’s counterintuitive because we think of meaning in life as coming from these grandiose experiences,” said Samantha Heintzelman, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark who studies the connection between routine behavior and happiness. “But it’s mundane routines that give us structure to help us pare things down and better navigate the world, which helps us make sense of things and feel that life has meaning.”
Of course, you can always take routines and rituals too far, such as the extremely controlled and repetitive behaviors indicative of addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and various eating disorders. In the coronavirus era, people may resort to obsessive cleaning, hoarding toilet paper, stockpiling food or neurotically wearing masks when driving alone in their cars. On the other end of the spectrum are those who stubbornly adhere to their old routines because stopping feels more threatening than the virus.