How Many Thinks Does it Take to Get to the End of a Pandemic?
The world may never know… but “mental bandwidth” is the key to trying to figure it out.
“I think everyone has lost their minds,” my friend expressed to me over the phone a few weeks ago. “The pandemic drove them all crazy, or maybe they’ve just always been stupid.” The details of her story aren’t the point of this story, but I’ll just say it involved a grocery store, masks, arrows on the floor, and, of course, the crazy people.
I interrupted. “They’re not crazy, it’s bandwidth.”
“It’s bandwidth,” I insisted.
“Yeah, but everything is bandwidth with you.” I swear I could hear her eyes roll over the phone.
I get it. Yes, everything is bandwidth to me. But, hey, that’s because everything IS bandwidth! I’ve been studying it for over 10 years, and what I’ve learned above all else is that using a mental bandwidth perspective can completely transform what we do and how we do it — for ourselves and for others. People just don’t know it — yet.
1. Bandwidth is extremely limited and extremely important.
What is “mental bandwidth”? Well, it’s the incredibly tiny amount of brain resources that we have conscious control over. Our brains process a ton of information, but only about 0.1% is within our control, meaning that our brains do about 99.9% of things automatically.¹ If that sounds high, try to remember the last time that you thought about inflating and deflating your lungs to breathe, or bending your knees to walk. Have you ever headed somewhere and ended up somewhere else, because that’s where “your car” decided to go? That’s your automatic processing kicking in.
Our bandwidth — the part we have conscious control over — is tiny, about equal to a short sentence each second. It’s extremely limited and extremely important. We need it to remember things, to learn, to be creative, to be patient, and also to ignore our more primitive instincts and do things like be polite. Like my friend was being when I interrupted her to bring up bandwidth. Again.
She sighed, “OK, why is it bandwidth this time?”
I could tell she was kind of annoyed, and I could have told her being annoyed would waste her bandwidth, but I didn’t think she wanted to hear it at that moment.
2. Many things steal our bandwidth that are largely out of our control.
Annoyance can eat up bandwidth? Yep. Our bandwidth is supposedly the part of our brain we have “control” over, but actually it’s more like the part we could have control over. In reality, a whole bunch of things steal our bandwidth that are largely out of our control — worry, fear, illness, self-criticism, being excluded, and a million other things.² All humans have about the same amount of bandwidth to start with, but depending on our circumstances, we can have very different amounts available to actually use.³
And right now we are in the middle of a global health crisis that not only threatens our lives, but also turns them upside down. Threats are tough enough on the brain. They switch on the fight-or-flight response, which actually causes our brains to shut down some of our bandwidth. But the threat stuff is just a start.
3. The loss of routines during the pandemic has led to huge, unexpected bandwidth demands.
The pandemic has led to shut-downs and stay-at-home orders that disrupted a LOT of our routines. I don’t know about you, but “getting ready for work” is a much different experience for me now than it was in February. And during those first few weeks of stay-at-home?
Honestly, all I had to do was work from home instead of work from my office. I usually do half my work from a Panera anyway, why would working from home be such a big deal? Yet I was exhausted and irritable and anxious for weeks.
Why? Well, because bandwidth (I told you, everything is bandwidth).
Here’s the thing — our routines and habits allow us to shift things OUT of our teeny, tiny bandwidth, and to use our huge amount of automatic processing instead.¹ We don’t really *think* about the things we do routinely. That’s why we automatically get our kids ready for school on a Monday before we remember that it’s a teacher service day, or why we “don’t remember” what we ate for dinner last night.
The problem is, when we take things off auto-pilot, our brains have to work hard. We need bandwidth for anything that is unusual, even if it’s simple. So when lockdowns went into place, all of a sudden we shifted a ton of daily activities from our automatic brain processing, to our bandwidth, meaning there was not enough bandwidth to go around. I call that “bandwidth exhaustion.”
4. Our bandwidth is exhausted from all of the pandemic uncertainty.
The second thing the pandemic did was to create uncertainty. A LOT of uncertainty. And our brains really, really hate uncertainty.⁴ When our brains can’t get a grasp on what’s going to happen next, they start trying to fit pieces into places that aren’t there — and wasting extraordinary amounts of bandwidth. Have you ever been waiting to hear about something really important, and when you hear — even if it’s bad news — you feel relieved because at least now you know? When we “know,” we free up bandwidth. When we don’t know? More bandwidth exhaustion.
There is an enormous amount of “not knowing” during this pandemic. As many experts (and memes) have informed us, we don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline. We don’t know when things are going to get back to “normal,” or even if they ever will. That drives our brains crazy and we waste a big portion of our extremely limited bandwidth trying to force things to be certain.
“That’s why you’re being so judgmental and controlling,” I explained to my friend on the phone.
Oops. OK, maybe that wasn’t the right way to say that. “I mean, that’s why people are being so judgmental and controlling.” Right. That helped, I’m sure.
5. Bandwidth exhaustion can trigger a threat response that can make us act more controlling, angry, or avoidant.
It’s true. Bandwidth exhaustion can trigger us to be judgmental and controlling. Or alternatively to turn to avoidance or denial. This is because when we have ongoing bandwidth exhaustion, we also have ongoing “failures” as we try to do things that need bandwidth, but don’t have enough to do them² (Um… Anyone else ruin their healthy meal planning during the pandemic? No? I don’t believe you…).
All of those little failures add up in our brains and feel like threat. It doesn’t matter if a situation is actually threatening. If the brain feels like it’s threatening, then that fight or flight reaction kicks in. But in the vast majority of day-to-day situations for modern humans, the threats that we experience don’t require us to actually fight or run away.
Instead of physical “flight,” we mentally run away by avoiding the things that seem threatening or by checking out from reality altogether. Have you noticed anyone during the pandemic who is binging more than usual? Food, alcohol, video games, reality TV — they’re all ways of checking out from the things that are taxing our bandwidth. And if we don’t “allow” there to be a pandemic, then we don’t have to do anything differently, and we can get back to those comfortable, low-bandwidth routines.
We have mental ways we “fight” too. Some of us get angry and aggressive and lash out verbally at those getting in our way or trying to control us. Which is ironic, because another “fight” mechanism is to try to control everything. If we can build an illusion of control, we can feel like we have certainty for a while.
Because if our kids do all their homework a week ahead of time, or our partners put the dishes in the dishwasher that way that they’re supposed to, or the grocery clerk puts the bread at the top of the bag, instead of squished in with the canned goods, then everything will be alright. That is, until the reality hits again and reminds us that there is no real control in a pandemic.
6. Bandwidth exhaustion can push us towards right-or-wrong thinking, which makes us more likely to be judgmental.
Bandwidth exhaustion also leads to judgment — of others and of ourselves. Bandwidth-deprived brains want everything to be yes or no, right or wrong, because then it feels much easier to make a decision. Out of desperation, we begin to decide what’s “right” and “wrong” so we can make it through the daily bandwidth demands. Wearing a mask? Right. Having other people over to our house? Wrong.
The thing is, the world isn’t that simple, especially during a pandemic. There’s a ton of gray area. But it drains our already-depleted bandwidth to try to sort it out. So when you decide for yourself, mask = right, and then see someone without a mask, your brain is going to scream “wrong, wrong, wrong!” Our bandwidth-exhausted brains are very (over)reactive, and thus very judgmental — even if that’s not the kind of person we would prefer to be.
“So if it’s bandwidth, there’s nothing I can do about it, right?” my friend asked.
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. Of course we can do something. But, what can we do, for ourselves and others? Well, that’s a whole other story, and I don’t want to ruin the ending. Interested? Check out my website and let’s talk. I think we can figure it out.
1. Chaiken, S., & Trope, Y. (1999). Dual-process theories in social psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
2. Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
3. Sarason, I. G., Pierce, G. R., & Sarason, B. R. (2014). Cognitive interference: Theories, methods, and findings. Routledge.
4. Burton, R. A. (2013). A skeptic’s guide to the mind: What neuroscience can and cannot tell us about ourselves. Macmillan.