Surge Capacity Brain Function and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Surge capacity as a concept is something hospital administrators and power plant managers are familiar with. Though the definition has been expanded to cover a lot of other different situations the one that interests us right now is the one used by neuroscience to study the brain under stress.

To better understand it all we need to look at a bunch of terms first which reflect separate but frequently overlapping cognitive systems and quickly look at how they work. The terms are: attention, focus, executive function, working memory, perceptual load and cognitive control. To keep things simple I will provide an informative overview of each term so we can use it to build a better picture of the decision making process in the brain.

Attention - in psychology attention is the concentration of awareness on some phenomenon to the exclusion of other stimuli. The definition is good enough to be used by cognitive neuroscience[1] when studying the thinking brain and its functional processes. Critically, attention is not a monobloc that the brain just switches on or off. It is a process and therefore a resource that the brain can use in various flavors such as: Sustained,[3] Alternating[4] (also known as multi-tasking), Divided[2] and Selective.

Paying attention is an energy-intensive task. The Invisible Gorilla test is one of the key experiments that highlight the limitations of the brain’s processes that guide attention.


Focus – From a neuroscientific point of view focus is not about consciously directing our attention to what we are doing (or what we want to get done) it is also about the brain’s capacity to simultaneously dial down the world around it. So, in effect there are two distinct systems at play. One directs attention and mental processes to a distinct task. The other suppresses distractions[5] so that task can be internalized better.[6] The best way to visualize this is to think of what happens when we are driving. The brain dials down the world happening outside the driver’s immediate environment in order to take into account things like traffic, driving conditions, speed limits and other drivers’ behaviour.

Executive Function – As the video below makes clear executive function[7] is the hub through which flows the traffic of all those functions that allow us to have relationships, hold down jobs, fit in civil society and get along with others. In short, everything that allows us to be mentally healthy, productive and happy.

Working memory – The cognitive system we employ that allows us to hold information long enough for us to take action is called working memory. The easiest example of working memory is what happens inside our head when we stop to ask someone for directions to a place we are looking for. Working memory also plays a role in behaviour and reasoning. What is key to remember here is that the quality of our working memory is reflective of our ability to work with information.[8] This is such a key concept that we shall need to return to it shortly and see how it weaves together with all the other functions.

Perceptual Load – The next item in our shopping list of cognitive systems is perceptual load which is defined as the amount of information involved when processing the task stimuli. What this means in the simplest possible English is our ability to take into account or ignore stimuli that are both task-related and non-task related.[9] Sticking with our driving analogy consider how when driving along a stretch of road we can choose to ignore everything that is happening on the sidewalk while taking into account task-related factors such as traffic, traffic lights, speed limit signs and driver behaviour while, at the same time, we choose not to focus on who is behind the wheel of the vehicles around us.

Cognitive Control – The last item on our list of necessary cognitive systems we need to know a little about is cognitive control. This is the process through which specific plans and goals influence our behaviour. Cognitive control supports flexible, adaptive responses and complex goal-directed thought and it is closely associated with executive function.[10]

Everything Is Connected

It is critically important to remember here that while we have looked at all these cognitive systems separately and briefly examined what each does as a stand-alone unit, in truth they are interconnected, have vastly overlapping functions and more than one are involved in performing particular tasks.

Consider, as just a ‘simple’ example, how maintaining focus requires the strategic allocation of attention, the effective management of distractions, a good working memory and excellent cognitive control.[11]

Similarly, decision making under pressure recruits a number of cognitive systems that range from emotional regulation to executive function to stimuli inhibition. All of this mental work requires energy, just as dozens of other additional mental processes require energy.[12] To make matters even more complicated consider how the brain itself senses how certain mental tasks are energy-intensive and slows down some processes to allocate energy resources for the long term.

The Pandemic Is Exhausting Us

To understand how all this complexity of our mental wiring fits into the real world that’s being ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, consider how the effects of the pandemic and the uncertainty it generates are perceived as a crisis.

The neurobiological and cognitive response to a crisis is itself an energy-intensive cognitive task[13] that adds to the brain’s mental load. A crisis, by definition, has a relatively short duration. It allows the brain to allocate all mental resources available to deal with it because long-term survival hinges on our getting through the crisis. The fact that the pandemic appears to have no immediate end in sight, presents a roller-coaster of risks and varying degrees of uncertainty when it comes to predicting the future is key to what happens to our brain.

Load theory[14] suggests that the efficiency of selective attention (i.e. the cognitive function that helps us determine what is task-irrelevant information and what is task-relevant information) requires the perceptual load and cognitive load we experience to be within our normal working limits. In a pandemic such as this, in order to function, we tend to ‘forget’ about the pandemic (barring some precautions) and try to go about our business as usual.

Studies show however that the thinking brain in order to ‘forget’ something needs to actively visualize it and then put a filter in place to suppress it.[6This is exactly why if I ask you not to think of a pink elephant, you end up thinking of a pink elephant.

Worse still, research indicates that the longer we try to suppress something we visualize so as not to think about it, the more it exhausts the mental resources that maintain the cognitive filters we have in place. At some stage the thing we try to suppress emerges in our mental world of its own volition.

Image of the Pink Elephant you were trying not to think about 

The pandemic is the ‘pink elephant’ of our experiment. As it goes on and acquires varying degrees of urgency with varying degrees of risk locally and internationally we alternate between mentally focusing and suppressing it. Each time we are called to respond to a fresh surge of the pandemic crisis we are less able and willing to do so because our emotional and cognitive resources have been depleted. Our surge capacity has been exceeded.

The immediate result is that we are distracted because so many of our mental resources have not had the chance to recharge and recover. Our focus suffers. Our working memory may weaken. This affects our executive function and cognitive control. We may become impatient, depressed, distracted. All of these directly affect our ability to process information about the world. With impaired assessment of situations we end up making the wrong choices which then leads to the wrong decisions.

Wrong decisions affect us directly because, as they accumulate, their collective impact becomes too much for us to overcome.

Adapt. Overcome.

In order to adapt and overcome this particular situation we need to employ fresh coping strategies that adequately reflect the reality we experience. Whether you are actively making decisions about your business or just your life, the process is identical:

  • Stop denying what you experience. Ignoring a threat, hoping it will just go away or wishing that things will just go back to normal is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy. Accept that the risk is real and that each of us has some chance of not making it through it. In that acceptance we free some of the mental energy we allocate to “not think about the pandemic” because we no longer have to suppress it. We live in a world that is being blighted by a potentially life-threatening virus. It’s real. But we still need to function in this world so our focus should be on what measures we can take that will allow us to do so while preserving our own safety and the safety of those around us.
  • Acknowledge what you feel. Embrace your fears, accept your emotions. The moment you stop fighting with yourself is the moment you realize that when the cognitive dissonance you feel dissipates, your focus gives you tremendous power. 
  • Define your mission. It’s hard to be focused in the best of times. The pandemic and the high levels of anxiety it induces make it many times harder. This is why it’s critical for your mission to be clearly defined. It will help you understand what tactical steps you need to take which means you can mentally rehearse them to reduce the potential for error.
  • Improve your selective memory. Focus on what is important not on what is catching your attention. Consider in our driving analogy, earlier in this article, what would happen if instead of focusing on the importance of braking lights coming on ahead we instead focused on picking out the different colours of the cars around us. Both the braking lights and the colours of the vehicles around us are information that exists in the real world which we mine through our senses. Only one piece of information will help us stay alive in the motorway and the colour of the cars around us ain’t it.
  • Recharge your brain. Use the sniper trick of changing sensory pathways to experience the environment so that you can recharge. Turn off the news for a while. Immerse yourself in your favourite music. Play a video game or read your favourite book again. Do something that will transport you, for a short while, away from the world of uncertainty and anxiety that we all experience at the moment.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a huge problem. There is no denying this fact. But in order for us to still be here after the pandemic has gone we need to actively take charge of our mental, physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. 



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