Sunday, June 13, 2021

More like Joyce, less like Proust: The Pandemic’s Signal to Noise Paradox.



It’s June. In the Northeast where I live, the pandemic is over. Here, Covid is a medical management problem and not a public health emergency. I hope it stays this way. I hope this is a cautionary remembrance of things past. 


Since a year ago March, when I moved my teaching and practice entirely online, I’ve logged more weekly hours than any time in my career. That’s come with benefits and costs. This is about some of the costs. 

In my consulting and clinical practice, I’d been hearing that production is high, but initiative, improvisation, and creativity are low and nearly everyone complains about Zoom fatigue.  That matched my state of mind.  That, and how many of us felt a bit like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, not clear what day followed the one before.


Mid-May, grumpy, spent, I escaped to Provincetown. Immediately I felt much better. I think I’ve learned some lessons. First, maybe foremost, is when to play hooky. 

Provincetown in May 2021 was my second escape from Covid culture. The first, back in October, was the woods and beaches of Chappaquiddick Island.  Then, during one of our Friday conversations, I told Michael Kubovy how different I was feeling from the previous seven months and how this fit with what I’d observed about my clients and students.  I was relaxed and open, my mounting doldrums vanished. Helping me understand my changed state, Michael suggested that except for far less talent, we are generally more like James Joyce than Marcel Proust. We do better when spending our day strolling the streets of Dublin than in bed with shades drawn in a cork lined room.

By now, mid June, the pandemic has lasted long enough to change society, fostering a Covid culture that, while intent on protection, took a toll on those never infected and who did not share the pain or suffer the loss of someone who was. 


Some costs are moral and psychological. The pandemic left many in states of languish, and some, victims of acediaits depressive variant. Other costs were political: hostile splits over adherence and resistance to political “biopower” [1]. The public discourse, the rancor on mandated shutdowns and masks that quickly devolved into ‘which side are you on?’.  The incompetent, odious, absurd utterances of Trump that met an under-examined counter to “follow the science”; too often an incoherent collection of methodologies and data promoted by different communities of interest: medical, economic, and academic. Policy and implementation did not fare well. Nor did we. 


Social distance and masking took a toll, and there's Zoom. Online, work from home did not happen on a level playing field. Many parents try to restrict their children’s screen time and want them to spend more time playing outside. I’ve come to see the value of that for all of us. 

This is about the condition of folk like me. I don’t have the numbers, but it’s a safe bet I’m not in a minority. So before you roll your eyes, I didn’t have it that bad, not at all; my life and livelihood was never threatened. Knock on wood, I was never sick, not broke, and in a stable relationship. I’m one of the privileged: a senior academic clinical psychologist, mostly home with wife and dogs, with fast reliable ethernet, and no children needing to be home schooled. My concerns are trivial compared to the endangered front-line workers, the truly isolated and impoverished, and those overwhelmed by grief, work, or worry.

Here’s some of the circumstances many of my ilk lived with: 

1) Stuck at home, more or less isolated with restricted encounters apart from our affinity groups. 

2) Engaged without handshakes. No collegial pats on the back.  Working, schooling, and shopping online. Living with less surprise and fewer random encounters.  

3) While productive  –– scheduling was easy, the commute gone, people knew where to find us –– we experienced Zoom fatigue: a consequence, I think, of a diminished and restricted ‘sensory ecology’ of a less varied, less novel sensory stimulation that undermined multimodal perception, ‘inter-affectivity’, and empathy.  Facing each other on screen, our engagement was less informed, less moved, by the rhythms of gesture and speech, the ‘dance’ that naturally and ordinarily is part of being in the physical proximity of others [3]. Dancing in harmony invigorates; being held in place, missing the beat, is tiresome.

4) Masks and social distancing are problematic. When we ventured out and tried to connect, but avoided physical closeness with faces masked, our full expression was muffled; was less intimate and empathetic. From trivial inconvenience to severe handicap, verbal behavior is enhanced not only by clear speech but by simultaneous lip reading [4]. Talking together, relaxed and spontaneous, was below par at best.

5) And while out, leaving home, affinity group, and pod behind, we feared contagion and suffered an uncertainty of whether it would ever end [5].

With all this in mind, I think I can throw light on why many of us have been both productive and stuck in a funk.  Why we started cozy but ended irritated in our cocoons. 


In a nutshell, here is my premise: To thrive, to experience comfort, satisfaction, and vigor; to improvise, create, and initiate, we need all our senses frequently engaged. We need random, unexpected encounters with the natural, architectural, and social worlds. And here’s the kicker: We need distraction. We need shiny objects pulling our attention away from the task at hand. Keep in mind that what distracts us, what catches our attention, interests us. What actually interests us, what doesn’t go against our grain becomes available for consideration. And that availability might come in handy.


Distraction is important, not because we acquire the discipline to ignore it, but in the sense of a metaphorical signal to noise paradox, where the noise enhances the signal by offering additional content and context. (Unless, of course, it is merely distraction. Naps help sort it out.)


In particular, akin to a seed crystal, unexpected encounters and distractions are idea nodes: Cognitive and emotional behavior potential that can provide associational connection to the task at hand; something novel we might recognize as significant and decide to pursue. (Of course, we might not. It helps to have the breathing space to think about what we've been thinking about.) I am taking issue with ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ when necessity comes from adversity. Adversity rarely makes us stronger or creative. Mostly it makes us mean, defensive, and closed off.  

Seeking safety in social distance and masks, living our lives on Zoom, the pandemic diminished our encounter with the complexity and nuance of strangers, companions, and our worlds [2].  Our bodies less involved, our empathy strained, we ended up more worn than usual. We could produce but did not thrive. 


My remedy is unexpected encounters and distraction coupled with a strong dose of whatever fully engages the senses. And naps. 



My friend and esteemed colleague Mark Greenberg alerted me to the Japanese therapeutic practice of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) "for the restorative impact of multi-sensory, natural stimuli."  "The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan" Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y.,  Environ Health Prev Med. 2010;15(1):18-26. doi:10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

Also consider this study on The Effect of Movement on Cognitive Performance.

From the 6/12/22 NY Times: Why Strangers Are Good for Us


[1] Michel Foucault’s term for "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (The History of Sexuality 1976, Vol. 1 p. 140).

[2] The Black Lives Matter protests following the constantly televised police murder of George Floyd was a galvanizing distraction for white Americans not accustomed to being victim of police violence.  For many, a wake up significantly informing awareness.  

[3] Concerning difficulties maintaining empathy while employing Zoom, see “Embodied Affectivity: on moving and being moved” Fuchs & Koch (2014) Frontiers in Psychology

[4] See for example, Altieri, N. A., Pisoni, D. B., & Townsend, J. T. (2011). Some normative data on lip-reading skills (L). The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America130(1), 1–4.

 [5] I’d like to believe I’ve overstated the problem in a blog posting The Affinity Group, the Mask, and the Counter-Progressive Politics of Suffering Alone (Some Reminders from Harry Stack Sullivan).






  1. In a similar position as an online transformational coach and teacher, husband with no kids at home. Not much changed for me during the pandemic except a severe reduction of dinners out, movies out, and friends over. I've been doing most of my work online for more than ten years, but with more clients, zoom fatigue did set in. Working with clients and students, I'm still sharp, focused, loving and effective. Everything else feels like some level of burden. I've felt fatigue, listlessness, and lack of focus and motivation creeping in. I've had to push myself to get things done rather than being excited and motivated from the inside. I've certainly seen these symptoms in my clients, especially those who are single, those who lost their jobs, and those who struggle to get online. You're pointing out important elements of this gnarly problem, Wynn, and I look forward to reading more.

  2. "...we need all our senses engaged." "We", who?