By Andréa de Paiva
The recent events involving the dissemination of COVID-19 and the adoption of lockdown measures have changed the way we interact with our homes. Many people had to learn how to work from their homes in activities that before were made in spaces adapted for them. Meetings must happen now only by video. Professors are learning how to teach distant from their students. Students are learning to study outside school. Families that before used to meet only during breakfast and supper are now coexisting in the same environment the whole day. Parents have to keep their children entertained for hours, days, weeks. Couples had to learn to respect each others spaces. And all that happened in just a few weeks, with no time to get ready. With so many changes happening so fast, what insights can NeuroArchitecture bring us?
Why did you choose the place where you live? Maybe it was because of the accessible price or because of the location near work. Or maybe it was because that beautiful living room that made you dream about wonderful meetings with friends and family. Or maybe it was because of the neighbourhood and the parks nearby where your children can play. The fact is that when we chose our homes, we did not think that we would have to stay there in an imposed lockdown. In such conditions, features that before made a lot of sense might not be very useful now.
The distress of having to deal with the uncertainty of a war with an invisible enemy can boost stress and anxiety levels. However, even disregarding this situation, the fact that we have to stay at home, in social isolation and keeping ourselves productive is enough to make most people feel uncomfortable. Besides, our homes were not designed to be occupied continuously. In this scenario, NeuroArchitecture might help us understand which environmental features have a bigger chance of affecting us negatively during such continuous occupation of our homes.
NeuroArchitecture and the several studies about how the environment can impact us have shown that the time of occupation of a space is an important variable to understand the effects it can generate. There are two main kinds of effects that an environment can engender: short-term effects, which are those more immediate and ephemeral; and long-term effects, which are more structural alterations that take longer to happen and tend to persist for longer periods . On the short-term, our organism adapts itself quickly to environmental conditions and, consequently, our emotions, behavior and mood can change. Even the way we perceive the space where we are can change. Stimuli that are repetitive or continuous, on the other hand, can induce other effects, such as alterations on brain plasticity (reinforcement, loss or creation of connections between neurons), increased or decreased nerogenesis, changes in gene expression, among others.
Studies since the 1960s by Mark Rosenzweig, Edward Bennett and Marian Diamond have shown that there are specific environmental features that are important to keep the brain's efficiency. They compared the brains of rats that lived in enriched cages (groups of 12 rats in bigger cages, with several toys that were changed regularly), standard cages (the traditional laboratory cage with only 3 rats per cage) and impoverished cages (the same as the standard one, but with only one rat per cage). The researchers noticed that while the brains of the rats in the enriched cage showed increased weight and thickness if compared to the rats in the standard cage, the brains of rats in the impoverished cage had shrunken. Not only that, but the performance of all the rodents was also tested in different tasks involving learning and memory and the ones that lived in the enriched environment had better results .
They repeated the same experiment in several conditions in search of a better understanding about which features were influencing the positive results achieved by the rats in the enriched cages. Finally, they were able to define four fundamental factors: size of the space, social interaction, physical exercise and change/novelty. Rats confined in very small spaces suffer from increased stress levels, which, on the long-term, is prejudicial to the health of existing neurons and inhibits the process of neurogenesis. Social interaction is very important to keep the brain health. They even found out that rats that were pet frequently usually lived longer than those that were not. Physical exercise, specially walking, is also critical to control stress levels and to stimulate neuronal plasticity and neurogenesis. Finally, if the enriched environment is always the same, after a while it ceases to have the same positive impact it used to have in the beginning. This is why the toys were changed regularly, to keep novelty .
Although these studies were made only with rats and not with humans, many other studies support the idea that these four elements are also import for us. However, in our current condition of imposed lockdown, we have no option other than to stay in not so big environments (depending on the size of each home); to have social interaction only with the ones living with us or by videoconference; to practice physical exercise in a limited way if we do not have the proper equipment at home; and to look for novelty and change only when we leave our homes to buy food. This is the reason why it is so difficult to keep patient and productive.
However, there are many strategies that can be adopted to help us deal with this situation. Having these four elements that we mentioned as the basis of our strategy, there are a few simple and useful options that we might consider. If the size of the environment matters but we cannot leave home, we can try to use what we have at our own home. One first idea is to remember to choose to spend a few hours in the biggest room available. Now is the moment to use windows, balconies and gardens (if you have one!). Even if your home is small, if you stay close to the window and look at the view, this will help you to feel a little less suffocated. Besides, in the window, balcony or garden you will be able to receive more natural light, which is important to keep our circadian rhythm, and you will also feel closer to nature if you can feel the wind on your face or if you look to the sky! It is also important to create a daily routine, with stablished hours to work and to practice physical exercises, of course! It does not matter the lack of space or equipment, it is time to be creative! One alternative is to walk inside your home. Another is to turn off the lights, raise the volume of your favorite song and dance in the dark. This will help you to release dopamine and serotonin and to improve your mood! Finally, we can use the time to make changes in our environment with our own hands! It is possible to change the layout of spaces, to alter the decoration using those old ornaments that you kept inside your closed or even to paint a wall or decorate it with your favorite pictures. To those that have children, one idea is to use this moment to make a little healthy mess, build a camping tent in your living room or a circuit with obstacles in the corridor, improvising with whatever you have. What matters most in times like this is to try to make the best of it, to stay safe and to keep the body and mind health!
 Rozenzweig, M., Bennett, E., Diamond, M. (1972) Brain Changes in Response to Experience. Scientific American 1972 February; 226(2): 22-29