New Quarantine Concepts

How do people form new concepts such as COVID-19 and social distancing?

Posted Apr 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many new concepts into people’s minds:

  • COVID-19 (short for “coronavirus disease 2019” also written “covid-19” and “Covid-19”):  the new disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
  • SARS-CoV-2 (short for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”): the novel virus that causes the new disease.
  • Social distancing (also known as physical distancing): the practice of keeping at least 6 feet from other people (in Canada, 2 meters or a hockey stick).
  • Flatten the curve (also known as plank or squash the curve): use social distancing and other measures to slow the rapid increase in the numbers of infected people.
  • Covidiot: a person who violates orders to social distance. There’s a poster that has Charles Darwin saying: "If you don’t want to quarantine, it’s OK." 
  • Proning: placing COVID-19 patients on their stomachs to improve breathing.
  • Basic bubble: a group of people such as a household who maintain close contact. Having contact with someone else is popping the bubble. 
  • Quarantine haircut: self-produced haircut of dubious quality.  
  • Quarantune: song to get you through the pandemic; see my playlist. 
  • Quarantini: alcoholic drink that reduces the stress of living in a pandemic. 

These concepts are new to the current pandemic, but there are other concepts that were already around but were new to me:

  • Super-spreader: Person who infects many other people.
  • Wet market: Market that sells fresh and sometimes live seafood, meat, and vegetables. 
  • Crump: rapid medical decline. 
  • Contact tracing: tracking the people that an infected person has been with. 
  • Smartphone tracking: using cell phones to track the spread of the disease and monitor people who are infected or quarantined because of travel.

Other concepts such as lockdown and shelter at home got new uses for quarantine purposes. 

These examples of new concepts provide tests of conflicting theories about the nature and origin of concepts. Plato thought that concepts are abstract, eternal entities that are innate in everyone’s minds, but it is ridiculous to think that concepts like COVID-19 existed before this year.

Equally implausible is the empiricist view that all concepts are learned from sense experience. Viruses are too small to affect the eyes, ears, or other sense organs, and viewing them through an electron microscope hardly counts as seeing when such microscopy depends on the existence of invisible, untouchable electrons. None of the concepts in my list could be learned from examples using machine learning techniques. Some simple concepts like dog and tree can be learned from sensory examples, but my quarantine instances are too abstract to form perceptually. 

Then how do the concepts arise? The most plausible answer is that they are formed by combining other concepts that are already familiar. The concept SARS-CoV-2 comes from combining five previous concepts: new, severe, acute, respiratory, syndrome, and coronavirus. In turn, the concept of coronavirus goes back to the 1960s when it was introduced to cover a group of viruses with crown-like surfaces. Formation of this concept combined the concepts of virus and crown based on numerous examples from chickens and humans including ones that cause the common cold. Later viruses were discovered that cause the diseases SARS and MERS. Conceptual combination is most obviously at work when concepts are represented by two words as in basic bubble. New combined concepts serve to explain diseases as in SARS-CoV-2 and to prescribe behaviors as in social distancing. I describe neural mechanisms for conceptual combination in my book, Brain-Mind.

Besides conceptual combination, an important contributor to the formation of new concepts is analogy. Social bubbles are analogous to the medical bubbles that can protect people with nonfunctioning immune systems. Analogies are also used to describe ways of responding to the spread of COVID-19: If lockdown measures are lifted too soon, the disease will rebound. One familiar metaphor is driving on an icy road by pumping rather than slamming the brakes—you brake a bit then stop and then brake a bit more. A more complicated analogy is the hammer-and-dance, which involves hammering down the virus but then doing a complicated dance of testing and surveillance. More simply, reopening the economy isn’t an on-off switch but more like a dimmer switch that operates gradually. Lifting restrictions because the curve is flattening is like taking a parachute off because the rate of descent is slowing.