Yes, Pandemic Brain Is Real and Could Happen Again

New research sheds light on how the COVID-19 pandemic impaired college students' decision-making and why it matters even after lockdowns have lifted.
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Published on April 24, 2023
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  • Pandemic brain includes trouble concentrating and an inability to make rational decisions, which can have negative health impacts.
  • Researchers found evidence for pandemic brain in college students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A combination of acute and chronic stress may hurt students' ability to make deliberate decisions and avoid health risks.

From early on in the pandemic, college students reported strange symptoms even if they didn't have COVID-19 — like forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, and an inability to think clearly. News outlets and social media users labeled the phenomenon pandemic brain.

New research published in the Journal of American College Health suggests that college students may have been experiencing pandemic brain at the start of the 2020-2021 school year through spring 2022. And, pandemic brain symptoms put students at risk of making less-than-rational decisions.

The Ohio State University researchers found that college students' decision-making was less consistent, less deliberate, and more impulsive during the pandemic. Beyond the pandemic, the findings can teach us about how other widespread crises could harm college students' health and cognition.

Is Pandemic Brain Real?

The researchers in this study set out to find if pandemic brain was real or just perceived. They recruited college students to complete tasks using the Adult Decision-Making Competence Scale, which measures how well people make decisions.

Your score on the tool can tell if you assess the consequences of a choice accurately and consistently. It also tends to predict involvement in risk behaviors, including alcohol and substance use.

Researchers compared responses from students who had completed the tasks before March 2020 to those who completed the tasks in fall 2020 and spring 2022.

They looked at three components of decision-making:

  1. Resistance to Framing: Were students' decisions easily swayed by how a problem or question was framed (e.g., if it focused on gains versus losses or vice versa)?
  2. Consistency: How reliable were students in assessing the likelihood of a future event (e.g., wrecking their car)?
  3. Confidence: How certain were students in their decisions? A good decision-maker is self-aware about what they know and don't know.

Participants in the pandemic group were less resistant to framing — signaling that they were more likely to base decisions on how a question or problem was worded. They were also less consistent in assessing risk. But, they were just as confident in their choices as the pre-pandemic group.

Behind the Numbers

It's important to keep in mind that researchers compared results from different groups of students before and after the start of the pandemic. In a perfect experiment, we could look at pre- and post-pandemic decision-making in the same group of students.

However, the researchers did test to ensure that regular end-of-semester stress wasn't influencing the study results.

Having pandemic brain can impact other aspects of your health and well-being. The researchers explained that when people are less consistent in their risk assessment, more reliant on framing, and just as confident in their choices, they're more likely to engage in risky situations or make impulsive decisions.

In fact, poorer decision-making on the Adult Decision Making Competence Scale is associated with substance misuse, gambling, risky driving, and risky sexual behavior in college students.

How Living Through the Pandemic Drained Our Brains

In some ways, the pandemic stands out from other stressful events. It combined acute stress — like finding out your roommate has COVID-19 — with chronic stress —facing daily high-stakes decisions. Think about it: Every time students went to class, the dining hall, or a social hang, they had to weigh the consequences for their safety versus their need for social connection.

It also adds up that students were less consistent with their decision-making and future-risk assessment. After all, global and national health guidance evolved by the week, the virus impacted different people and age groups differently, and no one could predict when the pandemic would end.

If all that sounds exhausting, it's because it was. And it's a recipe for decision fatigue.

So when will our brains be back to normal?

The researchers recruited additional students in spring 2022 to measure their decision-making performance and see if it had improved. Like the fall 2020 students, this group still made less consistent decisions than the pre-COVID cohort.

It's hard to know if spring 2022 brought on more or less stress than earlier in the pandemic. By then, vaccines were widely available, but the highly contagious Omicron variant was on the rise. Looks like the researchers will have to try again later.

That said, pandemic brain isn't a lost cause. The researchers noted that other studies have shown people can avoid impulsive decisions by focusing (not multitasking), slowing down, and limiting emotion-based elements.

As we all navigate the evolution of COVID-19 — or the next major health outbreak — college health campaigns can help promote these guardrails.

Pandemic Brain Raises Questions About Modern Stress on Students

As the pandemic cools, we should consider the broader implications of this research. Specifically, how do times of national or global crisis influence our capacity for good decision-making? How does ongoing stress impact short-term student health?

The researchers called for more research to be conducted on the impacts of poverty, systemic racism, and climate change on students' decision-making capacity.

It's also crucial to consider how college students are affected by living through other epidemics, like gun violence. At the time of writing this article, there have been five mass shootings on college campuses in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, campus carry laws may be more disparate than COVID-19 regulations.

Students are telling us they're fed up and stressed out by gun violence. In a 2022 survey we conducted, 65% of college students said school shootings make them concerned for their safety on campus. Almost one-third (30%) selected gun policy and control as a top election issue.

The research on pandemic brain should cue college health educators — and anyone who works with students. It's time to be vigilant against modern stressors in the macroenvironment and to brace for impact.