If you are a human on planet earth, then you’ve probably had a rather interesting 2020. Congratulations on your newfound IT powers and commiserations on your shriveled-up adrenal gland. Looking back to April, it’s amazing to think how suddenly the education system changed for educators and our students. Right from the beginning, my university took the online-only path and has largely stayed on that path throughout. As my poor first-year students began their socially-distanced university education, you could almost hear the cries of frustration. Mostly they seemed to accept that this was a necessary evil to prevent COVID-19 spreading. However, that didn’t mean that they didn’t hate it. You could summarize my students’ first few English conversations like this:
Student A: How are you?
Student B: I’m sad because of online classes.
Student A: Waaa me too! I’m so lonely!
Student A: I hope we can have face-to-face classes soon ☹
I’m sure you had a similar experience. The news was full of stories about angry students and parents demanding refunds from schools and other educational institutions, who responded unanimously with a strong “No takebacksies!” and a sly grin. Fast-forward to December and all the anger seems to have kind of, well, disappeared. No one seems to care anymore, not even my students. During the fall semester my university changed to a mixed approach that gives instructors the power to choose how their classes are conducted. At the beginning of this semester, my colleague conducted a survey with his students to find out if they wanted to change back to face-to-face classes. The response? An overwhelming “Meh.” Similarly, when I gave my students the option to either attend in person or work online, they almost all chose the option that let them stay in bed. I’m usually sitting in an empty classroom while Microsoft Teams is pinging with updates as they all log in from home or, bafflingly, another classroom.
All of this got me thinking; what is happening here? Why the change? Well, it turns out that this whole “new normal” meme that’s been appearing all over social media is actually a real and important psychological phenomenon. A study by Anichich et al. (2020) has shown that people begin to recover from stressful events even as those events are happening. Our brains start to treat the stressful stuff as just normal, kind of waving it away with our psychological magic wand.
That explains why my students seem to have forgotten to keep being angry, but why are they choosing to stay online rather than take classes in person? Are they just scared of getting infected, or is something else going on? An experiment by Crego et al. (2020) showed that a part of the brain called the phasic dorsolateral striatum lights up whenever rats receive a reward, causing them to form a habit of whatever pattern of behavior led to that reward. This behavior persists even after the reward has been taken away. So, assuming not coming to class resulted in a mental reward, maybe even something as small as looking at tweets about the “new normal,” students might have unconsciously formed a new social-distancing habit. Or maybe they just like sleeping in, I dunno. Either way, if there’s one thing that I’m taking away from this year, it’s that “normal” is just something our brains make up. Whatever you’re doing right now, that’s normal. Ten years from now you’ll probably be doing something different, and that will be normal too, because your brain will make it so.
D. S. Bowyer is a lecturer at Nagoya Gakuin University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, where he is conducting research into interactional repertoires. His research interests include interaction, Complexity Theory, and applied neuroscience.