Prof. Arkadiusz Gut from the Chair of Cognitive Science of NCU Social sciences

Mental trap of the pandemic

— Żaneta Kopczyńska
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Prof. Arkadiusz Gut from the Chair of Cognitive Science of NCU
fot. Andrzej Romański

Boredom, monotony, deregulation, fear, the feeling of hopelessness in lack of sense – a scope of emotions which, in the opinion of scientists, was accompanying us during the lockdown.  This has been indicated in the research by prof. Arkadiusz Gut from the Chair of Cognitive Science of NCU, who has checked how we are managing during the pandemic.

Since the very introduction of the restrictions due to the coronavirus (March 2020), Arkadiusz Gut, Dr. habil, NCU professor has been interested what impact they may have on students. The physically young left the premises of the University, returned home to study online.  The scientist and his team of cognitive science students decided to take a closer look on the consequences of a new situation. He began his research two months after the introduction of the lockdown.

- With scientific curiosity and the need to find an answer to the silence which set in the buildings of the University, we asked how students were managing spending their time in front of  laptops, lying in beds, torn out of the rhythm of classes and lectures, forced to return home, to their villages and towns, to parents, devoid of entertainment and discussions until dawn – explains Dr. habil Arkadiusz Gut, NCU professor from the Chair of Cognitive Science of the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences. – We were interested in their emotions, quandaries and the vision of the new world boiling in their minds. At the same time, we wanted to see if this new challenge triggered their creativity or rather apathy, frustration and melancholy. At the time we thought this state would be short-term, lasting one semester at maximum.

Large scale research

This was the beginning – the pandemic did not end as fast as we had wished, it was still in progress and has been so far for months.  Therefore, prof. Gut has expanded his scientific investigations to other groups. During the first wave of the pandemic, his team conducted narrative study among students. He returned to the young also during the third wave, he also carried out narrative research among children aged 6-10 and questionaries among adults (both during the first and the third waves).

prof. Arkadiusz Gut from the Chair of Cognitive Science of NCU
Prof. Arkadiusz Gut from the Chair of Cognitive Science of NCU fot. Andrzej Romański

- In total, we carried out four examinations spread in time, and the material we collected is really extensive – some issues have already been analyzed and conclusions have been made. Yet, it is so abundant that we will keep returning to it many times – says prof. Gut. – In the first run, we were interested in their emotions, especially the negative ones. We wanted to know their specificity, how they were related to the environment, what they are caused by, what they are saturated with, what are their characteristics and types.

Students have a voice

The cognitive scientists focused, most of all, on narrative research, as they wanted to capture the point which the young make about what happened to them.

We were particularly preoccupied with how, in emerging cognitive schemes, colloquial theories, a process of overcoming difficulties is developing, what stimulates the activity of students during isolation – explains prof. Gut. – We did not want to individual fear, personal anger, private loss, and their own victory and inner breakthrough.

Total deregulation

In students' multiple narrations, collected by prof. Gut's team, the experience of total deregulation stands out – during the first wave of the pandemic disappeared the sense of borderline between day times, holiday time and everyday time, time of work, study and leisure or rest. What disappeared was the sense of time. 

- What set in was strong awareness of force – we closed for them nor only the University, withdrew them from students' houses and rented flats and sent them to their family homes. They got into the same river, which they disappeared the did not want to get in any more – explains prof. Gut. - We were dealing with what I call "pleasure deprivation". The students were deprived of the possibilities to leave their homes, meet their mates, and to practice some physical activities. The amount of the stimuli which they received decreases drastically and immediately. All the activities they performed became repeated. What disappeared was the sense of presence, past and future. The feeling of force generated the feeling of being trapped. 

The inner feeling of regularity disappeared, thus the students had to, in most cases for the 1st time, implement a system of self-regulation. 

mentalne sidła pandemii
During the first wave of the pandemic disappeared the sense of borderline between day times, holiday time and everyday time, time of work, study and leisure or rest Il. Anna Jaszczuk

- This system comprised self-organization, self-discipline, self-motivation, self-supervision, etc. – explains prof. Gut. – For this reason, they were undertaking a series of activities, such as drawing plans and graphics, sticking yellow post-it notes with tasks to do, they set reminders in their mobiles, or asked their friends to call, write or to supervise they were doing the plan.

Boredom, boredom, and… again boredom   

In students' narration we discovered that the monotony, deregulation, the sense of being trapped, deprivation of pleasure, the vanishing of outer motivation at the lack of possible inner alternatives gave onset to boredom as a negative emotion, which immediately became a quiet enemy especially during online learning at home and in isolation – explains prof. Gut.  - At the same time, boredom enhances the feeling of uneasiness, anxiety, fear, and, what is more, it leads to frustration and irritation. It is emphasized that while feeling bored we lose the sense of difference between the past, the present, and the future, and in consequence, we stop caring about any change. If we do plan it, it often turns out to be fake planning.

In the state of boredom, which is proved in the research by prof. Gut, people are prone to release their creativity as they are stuck in a situation which requires achievement while studying.

What was the saddest was the fact that the undertaken activity, the purpose of which was to elevate their stimulation and motivation, did not bring about expected effects.  What appeared was the sense of pointlessness, hopelessness, the lack of control, which even amplified negative assessment of their own experiences, and even life – explains prof. Gut.  – The description of the experiences collected tells us that in particular various types of boredom in literature, we dealt with searching boredom, the element of which is looking for enjoyable alternatives, a strong need to get on well with life and the will of escape from the trap of pointlessness and hopelessness, as well as the lack of control over one's own life.          

Action adaptation

- The narrations during the third wave of the pandemic, which was in the 3rd trimester of online teaching are much different from those collected during the first wave – says prof. Gut. - Various means of force disappeared: students went out of their homes, resumed physical activities, social meetings, and some of their classes were being delivered in a hybrid form.  What was noticeable in their comments was the feeling they again had taken control over their lives, got out of a trap and no longer experienced boredom as a negative emotion. May another lockdown ever appear again as the demons of boredom, blurred time, lack of sense, the feeling of loss, and being trapped may return and take over the life of young people. This, as we already know, causes degradation of the sense of learning, especially online.

Towards social solidarity

What also looks interesting is the research based on questionaries carried out among adults during the 1st lockdown.

- In the first months, adult people felt a lot of fear of being endangered by an illness or death. Their self-esteem decreased, and they were not able to "seize the day"- says prof. Gut. – The searched for and they found, at least temporarily, a remedy, which was a world view. Many turned to religion, the others began to find support in social solidarity. Those two elements allowed them to get engaged in some activity and break down the apathy. It turned out, however, that such an approach was not long lasting: they practically almost disappeared in the third wave of the pandemic, which we are observing in the latest research. Soon an article on is subject of study is published under the title: "Cultural Management of Terror and Worry During the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Religiosity and a Dream of Human Solidarity Help the Polish People Cope".

Childlike fears

The joy of being in motion, being in a group embodies the carefree of our childhood. This is what cheers us even today.  In the memories of our childhood, we often return just to carefree. What will the children return to after the pandemic? – prof. Gut has decided to run his research also among the youngest. He was interested what happened in the world of young kids. How did the pandemic and lockdown affect their awareness, emotions, experiences, and dreams? Therefore, he conducted over 30 interviews with elementary school pupils in border town of Belzedy.

Studying the collection of children's opinions, we noticed that the situation plan which emerges from their narrations is repetitive, and that the particular roles of the heroes – staring from the 1st plan, through 2nd plan heroes, their characteristics – are in the children's awareness similarly written and sketched. It is the layout of the heroes, with their names and characteristics, and further their place in the narration, and – what is more – a certain attitude towards those figures that unveils to us the template of children's experiences and their perception of the situation they found themselves in – explains prof. Gut.  – The children's feelings and experiences were described in a scheme of a scenario together with figures and their roles.

The 1st plan figure in children's narrations was the disease – this is what they usually started their narrations from, and it was present in their narrations many times.

Children do not confront a virus, but a disease. The disease is rephrased as an enemy, villain or destroyer. It is someone that attacks, destroys, kills and brings death. This hero is very negatively portrayed and with total disapproval. At the same time, it is associated with extreme power and deceptiveness. No one can take it under control – says prof. Gut. – In consequence, they get stuck in a situation where the disease spread around becomes a barrier, a limitation, something which causes losses and generates emotional costs. These are similar to the reactions and attitude of children who suffer from chronic diseases.

Another hero of children' stories was the victim.

Here as well children's narrations reveal two key issues. First of all, the first victims of a disease – the central figure in children's mind - are not themselves, but their parents, grandparents or other family members, or sometimes anonymous people. But what is the essence in their stories? It is the emotional load. Children do not point to particular victims separately, but always of formulas which contain words, phrases which express emotional attitudes, such as: I worry, I fear – explains prof. Gut. – We must remember that this emotional state – market with fear and anxiety – is generated by children in a long perspective. Negative emotions and danger are not a momentum. They are what happens, what has been seen and what disappears after a scream or switching the light on. This danger is a constant element of the environment where children have been living for months.

Children have worked out the tactics of defense: all told the researchers how to fight with an enemy, for instance they mustn't cough at one another, it is mandatory to cover the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, they must wear face masks, wash hands, get vaccinated and maintain social distance. 

The world needs superheroes

- What can be seen in this sadness and anger is that the period of the pandemic, lockdown and isolation has taken the pink glasses off the youngest and has deprived them of the joy of their childhood. The pandemic and its consequences have not only stolen their health or driven them into the state of depression, but most of all it has violated their pleasure, delight, and their carefree related to being in the playground, swimming pool with their families, at school, with friends. The world without motion and playground games is a world deleted of carefree, which is what we remember as sweetness of our childhood – explains the cognitive scientist.

- From the analyzed material we can already draw three very important conclusions and recommendations for the future – says prof. Gut. – When it comes to children, we must beat our breast and admit to failure – we, adults, including the media and state institutions. Looking at the whole picture and collection of figures, around which the children's narration was taking place, we can see very clearly that we did not care well enough to place  next to the negative figures  those which are positive in the children's acquisition of the world, those heroes of fight against disease and death, heroes combating the enemy, protecting the victims, supermen who appear on the battle field, defending the threat, protecting against the upcoming death, and what is more, commanding admiration, joy, and also admiration and enthusiasm.  They are medical doctors, nurses, rescuers and social workers. We rather feed children with the image of fear, often failure, not triumph and superheroes.  Maybe in the period of the fourth wave approaching we will change this image.

When it comes to adults, prof. Gut sees hope in the view of the world, which could become a remedy for negative emotions experienced during the pandemic.

If we enhance fear and add it to our experiences in the form of other images, according to terror management theory (TMT) we will be searching for the remedies which will consequently generate strong divisions into "buddies" and "aliens", and at the same time will strengthen and turn all the information into set up narrations – says prof. Gut.

The third conclusion refers to students, and the whole system of their education. According to the cognitive scientist, the pandemic – especially during lockdown – showed that the model of learning built around the model of exterior motivation and supervision, when focused on assessment of knowledge only is disabled and does not generate any interior motivators. It does not enhance inner passions, which at the moment of the disappearance of the controlling system simply collapses.

- Maybe we should focus on developing the mechanisms of self-regulation and self-motivation – says prof. Gut. – Maybe we should get away from the school style of education, where the exterior regulations take precedence over the interior. Today it is us that are planning for the students the education, classes and the final effect. Maybe this image is worth changing, so that the students are the actors, and not passive recipients of their studies. What I am thinking of is the setting up of a system of councilors, like in the American model, who would support the students in their choices and would enhance their passions.

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