When “Unprecedented” Horrors Become the Norm, How Do We Live?
Harnessing the brain’s ability to adapt for a better future
In May 2020, the New York Times published the names of 100,000 people, all of whom had died of Covid-19 in the U.S. by that date. They called it, then, an incalculable loss. In August 2021, forecasts by Model predicted that the U.S. would see another 100,000 deaths before December 1 — and it no longer seems like such a big number. Similarly, when the “unprecedented” hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it was part of nightly news coverage for months. Ida just wiped out power to millions, but lasted much more briefly in our news cycle. And if someone tells you about a forest fire, well, you now have to ask which one.
We’re now inundated
The images come daily: a flooded city, with water lapping over the tops of cars. The anguished face of a woman forced from her home against a background of raging fires. Bodies jostling and crushing in an attempt to get onto a plane out of Afghanistan. Children on ventilators in ICU wards. Volcanoes, hurricanes, wars, and rumors of wars. This has become our new reality; the unprecedented is now the familiar, and it has done something unusual to our brains.
There have been 217 million cases of Covid worldwide, and 4.5 million deaths. A Washington Post article reported that such numbers turn something off in our heads, make us unable or unwilling to feel a sense of urgency. A psychologist named Paul Slovic performed a series of studies to determine how the sheer size of a catastrophe affects our ability to react. “The more who die, sometimes the less we care,” said Slovic, interviewed for a Washington Post article. “In greater numbers, death becomes impersonal, and people feel increasingly hopeless that their actions can have any effect.” The rest of the article suggests that it’s only “camera ready” events that cause people to respond — not vast and nameless statistics. But there is something more at work here.
Humans were built to adapt. It’s part of what has made us successful as a species, and new research done by MIT neuroscientists have found that it changes with surprising speed. Their work suggests the brain has a network of “silent connections” that under-gird…