What the Pandemic Is Doing to Our Brains

I have a job that allows me to work from home, an immune system and a set of neurotransmitters that tend to function pretty well, a support network, a savings account, decent Wi-Fi, plenty of hand sanitizer. I have experienced the pandemic from a position of obscene privilege, and on any given day I’d rank my mental health somewhere north of “fine.” And yet I feel like I have spent the past year being pushed through a pasta extruder. I wake up groggy and spend every day moving from the couch to the dining-room table to the bed and back. At some point night falls, and at some point after that I close work-related browser windows and open leisure-related ones. I miss my little rat friends, but I am usually too tired to call them.

Sometimes I imagine myself as a Sim, a diamond-shaped cursor hovering above my head as I go about my day. Tasks appear, and I do them. Mealtimes come, and I eat. Needs arise, and I meet them. I have a finite suite of moods, a limited number of possible activities, a set of strings being pulled from far offscreen. Everything is two-dimensional, fake, uncanny. My world is as big as my apartment, which is not very big at all.

“We’re trapped in our dollhouses,” said Kowert, the psychologist from Ottawa, who studies video games. “It’s just about surviving, not thriving. No one is working at their highest capacity.” She has played The Sims on and off for years, but she always gives up after a while—it’s too repetitive.

Earlier versions of The Sims had an autonomous memory function, according to Marina DelGreco, a staff writer for Game Rant. But in The Sims 3, the system was buggy; it bloated file sizes and caused players’ saved progress to delete. So The Sims 4, released in 2014, does not automatically create memories. PC users can manually enter them, and Sims can temporarily feel feelings: happy, tense, flirty. But for the most part, a Sim is a hollow vessel, more like a machine than a living thing.

The game itself doesn’t have a term for this, but the internet does: “smooth brain,” or sometimes “head empty,” which I first started noticing sometime last summer. Today, the TikTok user @smoothbrainb1tch has nearly 100,000 followers, and stoners on Twitter are marveling at the fact that their “silky smooth brain” was once capable of calculus.

This is, to be clear, meant to be an aspirational state. It’s the step after galaxy brain, because the only thing better than being a genius in a pandemic is being intellectually unencumbered by mass grief. People are celebrating “smooth brain Saturday” and chasing the ideal summer vibe: “smooth skin, smooth brain.” One frequently reposted meme shows a photograph of a glossy, raw chicken breast, with the caption “Cant think=no sad ❤️.” This is juxtaposed against a biology-textbook picture of a healthy brain, which is wrinkled, oddly translucent, and the color of canned tuna. The choice seems obvious.

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