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How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Jeffrey Zacks, Cognitive Neuroscience


Cognitive Neuroscience

Jeffrey Zacks


Jeff Zacks is Professor and Associate Chair of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington university, where he studies perception, memory and action in the mind and the brain, including brains that are developing or disordered. He has received numerous awards for his research, has written two books, published over 90 journal articles, and has written for Salon, Aeon, and The New York Times.

Transcription of the video


Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

I think one thing the pandemic has done is broken some habits. One of those that’s striking to me is business travel. Lots of us had all these trips scheduled in February and March that just disappeared. And this is no doubt induce some social and collaboration costs, but also has had real benefits for families and for the environment, reducing our carbon footprint. And I think we should take advantage of that lesson. 

What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

Here, I think, history should lead us to be pessimistic. When a crisis hits, we often have this feeling that everything has changed in some domain and that it’s going to stick forever. But history tells us that often the crisis ends, and things snap back. So, I think the big challenge is to take new habits that we discovered to be adaptive as a result of a crisis and make them permanent. And to avoid being seduced by habit-driven behavior that is from pre-crisis that we don’t want to go back to when that’s more adaptive.

Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

I’d start by saying that I think the big obvious negative consequences are social and psychopathological. And these are not to be neglected. But they’re also not so much an area that I have expertise in. One issue, which I don’t think is as important, but I think is pretty interesting and is of some importance concerns episodic memory. And the issue here is that we know that differentiating context is super important for burning in effective, episodic and autobiographical memories. And our normal existence offers a bunch of contextual cues that have been eliminated by living on zoom. So, in my normal life, I might teach a class and then walk from one physical location to another and have a meeting, and then ride my bike across town for a lunch or another meeting. Now, I go from zoom meeting to zoom meeting, as do we all. And lots of folks have told me that they feel like one event just blends into the other, blends in together in their memory. And I worry that we may wind up with a kind of collective fog in our memories for these couple of years. 

What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

My advice is to cheat. And what I mean is use external aides to support your memory. We’re lucky in this regard that we do so much on email, because if you save your emails that provides an ongoing record. But we can also take notes, we can make recordings, we can take pictures. I also think we can do some things to increase the contextual cues in our ongoing days. So if you’re just getting up from the computer, which is good for lots and lots of reasons, you know, taking a walk, getting out making a cup of tea… Breaking up your day in that way can help boost the contextual segregation of memories.

What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

I wish I had a lot of wisdom here. And I’m just speaking, not as a psychologist, but just as a person. And speaking as a person, what I would say is, this is a time for all of us to have a lot of grace, for ourselves and for our friends, and family and colleagues. I also think it’s important in the midst of all the horrors that this pandemic brings to take advantage of some of the silver linings. We have more quiet moments and it’s worth appreciating those. We have maybe a little more opportunity to get outside, and I think that getting outside has lots of benefits.
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