The neurochemical impact of Covid-19 and what this means for you
An uncomfortable truth
Let’s face it, if you built a robot sensitive to dopamine, serotonin, cortisol and oxytocin, for all intents and purposes you have built a human. This does not fit with the biological definition of human life, but it does tell us a lot about human lifestyle.
Each of us have the following tendencies (to varying degrees):
- We want to feel safe (Cortisol)
- We want to feel happy (Serotonin)
- We want to feel excited / motivated (Dopamine)
- We want to feel connected (Oxytocin).
For hundreds of thousands of years, these neurotransmitters, essentially home-grown drugs, both kept us alive and compelled us to explore, and thus develop as a species. We lived by our wits. Inattention or poor decision making often had fatal consequences. Dopamine and cortisol dominated. Though oxytocin drove us to operate (successfully) as a pack.
We can’t go on living like this
This was a precarious period for humans and so we took steps to introduce a little more certainty into our lives. Forward planning was considered a step in the right direction. So 12,000 years ago we took to agriculture as a means of food security.
This led to fort building and claiming land. Eventually we developed cities. Occasionally we went to war with other cities and over time with other nations. Life was still relatively precarious, but our activities were generally geared towards improving security and predictability, sometimes to the cost of others.
It would seem that as a species, we were looking to trade a cortisol-fuelled existence for one of serotonin.
Over the years in our quest to impose certainty on our existence, we developed reliable tools. This pursuit evolved into machine building. Around three hundred years ago, this took a quantum leap with the arrival of the industrial era.
Careers for all
The industrial era gave us more certainty. Now we could build factories knowing that their outputs would be in demand long enough into the future to justify the capital investment. To make them work, where the factory technology had yet to become available, we used humans (‘organic process cogs’). We had them doing very unnatural things such as attaching doors to a car, assembling athletic footwear or replacing the hip of another human. Careers were no longer limited to blacksmiths and merchants. Everyone could in theory have one in the age of the machine. This in turn led to an increasingly predictable world where a citizen’s life journey could be mapped out by a series of predictable events ranging from first day at school through to retirement.
The industrial era was largely a very positive economic experience for many citizens. Having disposable income, one could now architect a lifestyle to highlight how well the game of life was being played. Of course there were winners and losers.
The winners were generally the factory owners and the losers were the factory workers.
However the notion of a career and the increasing sophistication of the factory (now a financial trading floor or a professional services firm) enabled factory workers to become winners, of sorts, too. We had successfully managed to architect a serotonin-fuelled society. However we appear to have traded the frequent near-death experiences of the savanna (characterised by sharp cortisol spikes) for chronic modern-day living stress (constant drip-fed cortisol).
Life for many, in the developed world at least, was largely an exercise in lifestyle engineering. Missing your dopamine fix? Go on a (‘bubble wrapped’ / 5-star hotel) safari. Or join the queue to climb Mount Everest, accompanied by a local who has made the commercial decision to risk her life to support mainly overconfident wealthy idiots who see little difference between Instagram and reality.
The synthetic state
The developed nations have largely tamed their societies to support this societal ‘synthetic certainty’. And the citizens in turn have come to expect their governments to maintain this unnatural state.
But of late, governments have been struggling to maintain this illusion. Terrorism, currency wars, and advances in information technology are examples of forces that are upsetting apple carts globally. Though it is biology that is raining on our parade today. Covid-19 (or specifically the underlying virus SARS-CoV-2) is just another reminder that the foundation on which we live our predictable lives is crumbling. When considering the impact of Covid-19, one might conclude that it is nature’s official closing ceremony for the industrial era. The time is up on our little serotonin engineering experiment.
Narcissism trumps humanity
It is a sign of how decoupled we have become from our true nature that some people see their lifestyle, and the livelihood that affords it, as more important than saving lives. Humans have ‘evolved’ to a point where we enjoy dominion over other species because of our ability to collaborate at scale. Some people see Covid-19 today as simply an unwelcome lifestyle interruption and the government better get on with dealing with it and returning us to normality. A sign of this is when supposedly top tier journalists demand a date from the government ministers in respect of when we will be returning to normal.
Well the bad news, if you like sleepwalking your way through life, is that normal has left the building.
We have returned to the savanna, figuratively speaking. The industrial era in the grand scheme of things was a ‘blip’ in mankind’s existence. We traded our humanity for economic gains. It was no longer how can I help my neighbour, but how can I outperform them. Perhaps I am being harsh? Many people have been lifted out of poverty. But this appears to be with a view to opening new trade destinations and thus creating more sleepwalking consumers.
Again, this transition to the ‘next normal’ should not be a surprise. For the last few decades it has been largely information technology based. Today it is biological in nature. But this is only one of the biological forces that will be layered upon the digital forces already at play. Add to these the macroeconomic forces associated with resource availability and the hyper-connectivity of markets and you have the ingredients for a very uncertain future.
As I write this, many countries are in lockdown. Some people are endeavouring to maintain a degree of normality by working from home. They don’t need to be present at the ‘factory’. This enforced experiment is going to disrupt the commercial property ecosystem. It might even impact the demand for transport infrastructure. People might decide that they like having more time at home and spending less time dissipating their cognitive capital when fighting their way through rush hour crowds.
Some people have seen their employer’s business collapse. Industrial era modelled businesses are not built to withstand unexpected forces. These people are being forced to reassess the career trajectories, or at the very least consider how they can kickstart new cash streams. Side hustles are becoming the primary hustle. On that point, even if your employer is managing to stay solvent, you would be wise to start developing one or more side hustles. Covid-19 might also be considered the official opening ceremony of the mainstream gig economy.
AI vs humans?
Let’s not forget that robots and AI are not in lockdown and are available immediately for work, even if you are not. Some will discover that post lockdown, they have been replaced by an algorithm. But this is only scratching the surface. Businesses and governments will need to radically transform. This means building super-resilience into their operating models
Smart organisations won’t abandon their people. Our largely untapped cognitive capacity can easily be applied in innovative ways. But we must take the handbrake off our brains and offer more than just our services as compliant organic factory process cogs. This will be both a shock and very stimulating.
Whilst you can say goodbye to security, with the right capabilities, you could be saying hello to freedom. Freedom to do the work you want, when and where it suits you.
Life is about to get exciting, and exciting triggers our natural talents. Talents that we have in many cases suppressed for three hundred years. Covid-19 is of course unwelcome. However, it is also a societal clarion call to brace ourselves for the next chapter of humanity’s journey. Where do you sit on a scale that runs from ‘highly coiffured lapdog that is just about to be set loose in the Amazon forest’ through to ‘seal team operative telling a bedtime story to your kids via Zoom whilst abseiling down a building in enemy territory’? Hopefully you have picked up enough from this post to recognise which end of the spectrum we need to gravitate towards.
So dopamine is back on the menu.
And as we adapt to this increasingly uncertain and volatile world, our serotonin will rise again, but not to the artificially exaggerated levels of the industrial era; comfort is a species ending condition. Life is again a team sport. Narcissists need not apply. Connection will become less a hobby and more a need in this new era, so expect oxytocin to rocket. Cortisol won’t go away, like the other neurotransmitters we need it. But now its use is limited to ‘special occasions’.
Do not underestimate the impact of Covid-19. Your future awaits. Excited?