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10 Things the Brain Does in Response to Pandemic

The brain reacts in predictable ways in unpredictable situations.

1. The brain tries to offset some of the frustration from big problems by creating additional solvable ones.

When we cannot wrap our heads around a problem, this creates dissonance. A way to distract us from a colossal problem is to create other solvable ones—for example, the toilet tissue shortage. Logically, food, shelter, and medications are the most necessary needs. When we create a shortage of dispensable items such as toilet tissue, finding solutions to this manageable problem makes us feel a sense of victory and control.

2. Why can't we just follow these simple solutions?

The brain assumes that simple solutions to big problems are ineffective. The CDC has released simple recommendations to stop the spread of the virus, such as the frequent washing of hands. We assume that complex problems require complicated solutions to be solved.

3. The brain operates under the law of least effort. It likes to operate on autopilot.

When we are off autopilot, it repels. We might deny what is going on. We might reduce its significance. We might search for what else can be done on autopilot. We have our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines. Working nine to five, weekend activities, and a two-week vacation per year, or some sort of routine. When many of these activities are suspended or severely mutated, we are kicked out of the comfortable autopilot zone.

This means we need to use the other brain system. The second brain system is engaged when logic, deliberate and effortful thinking is required. Our brain does not repel much when we have to use this second system for a limited number of hours a day. But in the case of an emergency, this deliberate system has to work over-time. This might explain why on the days after the "emergency" announcement you did not accomplish much, but still felt fatigued at the end of the day.

4. But seriously, why are we over-eating?

Your unconscious got the emergency memo. It is unsure if there will be a next meal. What if this leads to a famine? What if all the food vanishes? The brain will make you overeat to save the fat for the upcoming emergency. It has good intentions: to increase your survival should food disappear.

5. We surely have had similar situations in the past and we managed.

Why can't we use these past success examples to reduce our anxiety? Stress hormones, which are released in abundance in these situations, negatively affect memory systems such as the hippocampus. Thus, we experience forgetfulness and cannot readily access these encouraging past examples.

6. Why is my thinking frontal lobe not kicking in to calm me down?

Higher decision-makers such as the frontal cortex are connected to lower emotional parts such as the amygdala. These lofty brain parts put the brakes on when the emotional parts get overwhelmed. In emergencies, the amygdala takes the driver’s seat and ejects many false positives. In situations that may compromise your survival, the brain would rather be overcautious and wrong. Rumors, fake news, and anomalous stories gain credibility.

7. Why would this horrible thing happen to good people like us?

Many of us believe in a "just world." This protects our self-esteem and our anxiety around mortality and vulnerabilities. Many Americans believe that "bad things don’t happen to good people." The brain has to solve the paradox of "we are good people, but still receive punishment." This creates uncomfortable dissonance that we try to get rid of.

8. If you want to annoy the brain, place it in uncertainty (watch my BBC interview).

Predictable situations give us a false sense of control. The current global situation is erecting a new reality that our brains find undesirable. Many things seem unknown today, and tomorrow is stained with uncertainty. The frontal lobe struggles to find some givens—parameters to feel confident about planning ahead. This makes subservient emotional parts freak out even more. This explains why the frontal lobe has been generating some arbitrary decisions.

9. We don’t like to be visibly vulnerable.

We live in an individualistic society. We like to appear self-sufficient, confident and able. The brain tries all kinds of tricks to protect this image and feels threatened when it fails. Emergency situations may unmask many of our vulnerabilities.

10. Why is it hard to focus?

Our attentional resources are limited. We do not multi-task as well as we would like to think. Also, salient information usurps our attention regardless of our intent to focus on something else. Currently, our attentional space is monopolized by anything related to the coronavirus.

More from Marwa Azab Ph.D.
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