Languishing: the malaise of our pandemic times

Our journey through this pandemic is unprecedented in modern times.

image: NBC News

We won’t know what the exact effects of the pandemic will be until it’s over.

Meanwhile, psychologists suggest that if we can find words that describe how we feel now it helps us cope; words like “grief” and “languishing.”

I thought it might be helpful if I could find the expanded use of commons words during the last pandemic of 1918. But I couldn’t.

Instead, I did find some technical terms in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic. We know that fifty million people died globally in four waves during the pandemic. And, similar to this third wave of this COVID pandemic, it hit young people hard. Many died within three days of showing symptoms.

One diagnosis from the Spanish flu pandemic was “encephalitis lethargica.” It was characterized by excessive sleepiness, abnormal eye movements, fever, and movement disorders, although virtually no neurological sign or symptom could be found. The chronic phase was characterized by Parkinson-like signs that could last months, even a year, after the pandemic ended.

“Grief” is one of those words for which the meaning can be expanded to describe the way we now feel. One dictionary meaning is: “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” But more recently, the definition of grief has been expanded to mean “mourning the loss of normalcy.” Psychologist Adam Grant says that the expanded meaning of grief gives a sense of familiarity:

“[The expanded meaning of grief] gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand what had felt like an unfamiliar experience. Although we hadn’t faced a pandemic before, most of us had faced loss. It helped us crystallize lessons from our own past resilience — and gain confidence in our ability to face present adversity (New York Times, May 4).”

Languishing is another useful word. Dictionary meanings include: to be or become feeble, weak, as in Plants languish in the drought. Adam Grant expands the definition:

“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Languishing is the “blah” feeling we have during the pandemic.

I originally read Adam Grant’s column in the New York Times after my cousin sent me a link. She added: “I think these days I’m languishing. Seems I’m putting in time until we can travel and see people again. Melancholy isn’t the right word.”

Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of your drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.

If this pandemic is like the last, we will experience depression and anxiety disorders for years, even if we aren’t suffering from symptoms today.

Sense and consciousness

Consciousness is at once mundane and profound. It’s mundane because it’s as common as the air we breathe. It’s profound because it shapes our view of the spiritual world.

The Mystery of Consciousness. John Searle

The Mystery of Consciousness. John Searle

Consciousness is by nature non-physical. For most of us, it seems to be “centred just behind my eyes, right in the middle of my head,” says Jay Ingram in his book Theatre of the Mind – Raising the Curtain on Consciousness. That’s not the case for everyone. Some locate consciousness in the back of the head, or even the throat or heart.

Sometimes consciousness seems not to be in the body at all, as when you think of the last time you were on the beach; you might see yourself from behind, from above or just about anywhere except inside your head.

Consciousness leads us to imagine beings without bodies. The existence of ghosts, gods, angels, devils seems perfectly plausible. If gods exist, then religions are a natural consequence.

The speculation is endless. If our minds are as separate from material bodies, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that we continue to exist after we die. And maybe those non-physical beings materialize in the bodies others as in reincarnation.

There are some indisputable qualities of consciousness. John Searle, in his book The Mystery of Consciousness lists them. For one, consciousness is completely subjective: it’s all about us. Another is its singular nature. Despite drawing from widely different senses, it presents us with one view. The pain of stubbing your toe occupies the same world as what you are reading.

However, the impression that consciousness is non-material is wrong. It seems to me that the mind and body are one and that dualism, the so-called mind-body problem, is a consequence of the misunderstanding of consciousness. That would explain why mental illness can be treated through chemicals or through the mind. George Johnson explains:

“Depression can be treated in two radically different ways: by altering the brain with chemicals, or by altering the mind by talking to a therapist. But we still can’t explain how mind arises from matter or how, in turn, mind acts on the brain (Globe and Mail, Aug. 5, 2016, Magic in the machine)”

The two treatments only seem different if we are convinced that the mind and brain are separate.

Just what consciousness is remains a mystery but here are four explanations from the most plausible to least.

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano proposes that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself, similar to a dream. Consciousness is simulation of the workings of the brain –the firing of neurons and synapses. “The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it.”

Along the same lines, Jay Ingram suggests that consciousness is a story that our brains tell ourselves: “consciousness is a highly processed and abstracted version of the world outside the head, an invention more than an impression… (p.27).”

John Searle: “In my view we have to abandon dualism and start with the assumption that consciousness is an ordinary biological phenomenon comparable to growth, digestion, and the production of bile (p.6).”

And lastly, consciousness is built into everything including molecules and atoms. Called panpsychism, advocates see themselves as minds in a world of minds.

Eat your vegetables, feed your microbiome

Your mother was right: vegetables are good for you. Not only do they contain essential nutrients but they also feed your microbiome with fiber.

For each of our body cells, we carry around ten microbe cells. In this light, the definition of “we” could be refined. It would be more appropriate to state that we, the microbiome, tolerate the conceit of body cells to suit our own needs. The body cells of so-called civilized societies haven’t been serving us well. Our population has declined in comparison to those in the majority world who eat more fiber and take fewer antibiotics.

happy

It’s counterintuitive that modern societies, while relatively free of infectious diseases that cause inflammation, suffer from inflammatory diseases. Antibiotics have reduced deadly diseases while inflammatory, autoimmune, and allergic diseases are on the rise. If infection is not causing these diseases, what is?

It seems that we (microbiome et al) have traded one disease for another. In reducing infectious disease with antibiotics, we have killed off the bacteria that suppress autoimmune diseases such as asthma.

Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, explored this connection. He found that mice treated with the antibiotic vancomycin had an increased risk of asthma later. The antibiotic had killed beneficial bacteria that are part of the clostridial group.

The clostridial group is related the scourge of hospitals: Clostridium difficile which causes death by diarrhea. But where C. difficile prompts endless inflammation and bleeding, bacteria in clostridial clusters do just the opposite—they keep the gut healthy and soothe the immune system. Moises Velasquez-Manoff explains in Scientific American:

“Scientists are now exploring whether these microbes can be used to treat a bevy of the autoimmune, allergic and inflammatory disorders that have increased in recent decades, including Crohn’s and maybe even obesity.”

The exact cause of inflammatory bowel disease remains a mystery but the picture is becoming clearer. Finlay’s findings confirm earlier results from Harry Sokol, a gastroenterologist in Paris. He ran laboratory tests on his patients with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder of the gut.

All his patients had one thing in common –a scarcity of just one common bacterium, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii. Rather than “bad” microbes causing disease, maybe a could a single “good” microbe could prevent disease. Studies suggest that antibiotics may deplete the very bacteria that favorably calibrate the immune system, leaving it prone to overreaction.

Our microbiome is more integrated into ourselves than previously thought. The state of our gut influences our state of our mind. Happy bacteria love munching on plant fiber, something we get too little of. Some of the byproducts of this munching include neurotransmitters and metabolites that act on the brain.

Our brains respond through the brain-gut connection, the vagus nerve, to help calibrate our immune system. Studies on mice with sterile guts by John Cryan, a neuroscientist in Ireland, indicate how profound the effects of our microbiome is. He found that sterile mice lacked the ability to even recognize other mice with whom they interact.

We kill off gut bacteria with antibiotics, and fail to feed them with fiber at our peril; leaving us susceptible to  anxiety, depression and even autism.