We’re in a Giant Fear-Conditioning Experiment
Your brain is working overtime to keep you safe right now
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
Your brain, conditioned to fear (and working to keep you alive) 😱
Your brain is working overtime to keep you safe right now. It has adjusted to a whole new reality and learned in a relatively short amount of time that what was once benign is now dangerous. For many people, these new fear associations are so strong they can even be triggered when the threat isn’t imminent. Has your stomach clenched during a concert scene in a movie? Or did looking at pictures of the Rose Garden Supreme Court nomination ceremony make you recoil? That’s your brain’s learned fear response in action.
A fear of crowds isn’t inherent — most of us didn’t have this response to large groups of people pre-Covid-19. So, how did we develop this new anxiety so quickly?
Over the past seven months, the country has taken part in a giant fear-conditioning experiment. We have learned that crowds are a high-risk situation for contracting Covid-19, so we don’t go to places with crowds anymore (most of us, anyway). Not only that, we have developed a physiological fear response (sweaty palms, knotted stomach, shallow breathing) triggered by this new conditioned stimulus. Pavlov would be so proud.
Fear conditioning is when you learn that a previously neutral stimulus (a crowd) predicts a dangerous or unpleasant situation (a deadly disease). Eventually, the neutral stimulus starts to trigger the fear response on its own, even when the dreaded outcome isn’t possible, like when you view a crowd scene on TV. You can’t catch Covid-19 from a movie filmed in 1989, but the association is so strong that your brain produces a fear response anyway when you watch the New Year’s Eve party scenes in When Harry Met Sally for the 17th time (or maybe that’s just me).
The classic fear-conditioning experiment is giving mice a brief electric shock right after…