This is an email from Inside Your Head 🧠, a newsletter by Elemental.

We’re in a Giant Fear-Conditioning Experiment

Your brain is working overtime to keep you safe right now

Image: mathisworks/Getty Images

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 a sound is played. Initially, the mice freeze in response to the shock (their natural reaction), but soon they start to freeze in response to the sound, even before they’ve been shocked. The mice have learned that the sound predicts the shock, and their fear response kicks in early. In the final stage of the experiment, the mice continue to freeze in response to the sound, even when no shock comes. The fear conditioning is complete.

Fear conditioning is one of our most deep-rooted forms of learning, because it helps us to avoid — and therefore survive — potentially dangerous situations. It sits at the intersection of emotion and memory, controlled in the brain by the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in processing fear and memories, respectively. The two brain regions work together to learn, contextualize, and remember new situations that are potentially dangerous and warrant a fear response.

If you experience the previously neutral stimulus (a crowd or a noise) enough times without the scary event (Covid-19 or an electric shock) following, the conditioned fear response will start to decay. You’ll stop reacting to the situation as if it’s dangerous, and the connection in your brain will weaken. This means that eventually, when the risk is over, you will be able to go to a concert and not have a panic attack. But that’ll probably be a while.

This made me think of optimism bias

What about the people (like some in our government) who have also heard that crowds increase the risk of catching Covid-19 but go to large events with lots of other people anyway? They likely are experiencing something called optimism bias: “Sure, the coronavirus has infected more than 7 million Americans and killed over 200,000 of them, but it won’t infect me. I’m special.”

For an Elemental article I wrote in August about how our brains process risk, I spoke with David Ropeik, author of the book How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. He says:

When we take a risk, we engage in something that’s called optimism bias. That is, it won’t go as bad for me as it will for somebody else. And we use that all the time to do all sorts of risky things — drunk driving, jaywalking, speeding, going out in the sun without protection for our skin, you name it — so that we can do stuff that’s risky. That’s the rationalization tool used for taking risks. “It won’t go as bad for me as somebody else.”

Unfortunately, wishful thinking doesn’t work on the novel coronavirus. But distance and masks do.

Try this to snap yourself back to reality

Starting to feel your fear conditioning wear off or your optimism bias slip in? Think of the most horrific outcome of what would happen if you caught the coronavirus, or read a few stories by people who have lost a loved one to Covid-19 or have been scarily ill themselves. Seriously. Evocative stories or images drive home how great the risk really is and can shake you out of your apathy or denial.

Liz Kotin, my colleague at Medium, recently recounted her own terrifying and drawn-out experience with the virus this spring. She writes:

The terror of being on the early end of a not-well-understood disease, of being at the mercy of a never-ending array of bizarre and worrisome symptoms, of feeling like there was no one who could help, of feeling better only to feel worse again, of being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, of my four-year-old asking me, “Mommy, can you please keep your eyes open?” was too much to bear.

Keep that in mind the next time you think about going to a football game or a political fundraising event.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store