Ask a Reporter: How Your Brain Navigates a Pandemic

A quick interview with science reporter and brain expert Dana Smith

Photo: Max Bender/Unsplash

At this point in the pandemic, your brain might feel fried. Life has turned into a game of risk, as Elemental’s senior writer Dana Smith reported this week, and every decision now requires fraught assessments of what’s safe and what’s not. I caught up with Dana over Slack about how the brain is processing the pandemic and how she approaches the coronavirus coverage cycle.

Alexandra Sifferlin, blog editor: You recently published a mega-feature on what navigating everyday life is like for the brain and how people assess risks and make decisions in moments of uncertainty and fear. What for you was the most enlightening thing you learned from the reporting?
Dana Smith, health and science writer:
Diving right in with a meaty one! I like it. The interaction between disgust sensitivity and risk aversion was fascinating to me and made total sense. One aspect of that research that didn’t make it into the article was that the connection is strongest between disgust and risk of bodily harm, followed by social risk, and then financial risk at the bottom. So, the connection really has to do with the body, and more abstract risks, like losing money, are less strongly linked to disgust.

I thought it was so interesting because it starts to build almost a personality trait of aversion to harmful things, whether it’s eating old food or going bungee jumping.

So, we’re more likely to respond strongly to risks to our bodies versus risks to our finances?
If you’re strong on disgust sensitivity, yes. Also, there’s a perception aspect to it. It’s not just that you feel something is riskier or more disgusting than somebody else—you actually see more potential contamination. There was a fascinating study that Simone Schnall, the disgust researcher, described, where people high on disgust sensitivity are more perceptive at viewing black dots on a white background than white dots on a black background. The theory is that those dots might stand out more to you if you’re worried they’re dirt or bugs or something gross.

I am definitely a person that would see more black dots. The different ways people’s brains view risks is really compelling. For example, you cite in your story the ways that young people view risks in a fundamentally different way than someone older might. So, young twentysomethings in bars might not be jerks (per se) but really perceive the risk of Covid-19 differently. And it’s more than just a maturity thing, right?
I mean, it is and it isn’t. The brain isn’t fully developed until you’re about 25, and the last region to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is that rational, planning, self-control area. So, partly young people are more impulsive and driven by desire because of their biology. We hear this a lot. But there’s a potential evolutionary explanation about all this that young people need to be less risk- or ambiguity-averse, because if they weren’t, they’d never leave the nest, as it were.

And the research I cited showed that they’re not dumb or reckless — they’re not taking the clearly bad bets that have little chance of winning — but they are more open to ambiguity. They don’t see the unknown as being as scary as adults do.

Oh, to not view the world as a terrifying place right now. 🙃
I know, right?! But imagine how much more frustrated you would be if you didn’t think it was a big deal.

Very good point. As someone who has studied and written about the brain well before this particular feature, have you been taking this kind of research into consideration in your own life and daily navigating of the pandemic?
That’s such a good question, and I probably should apply the research to my own life more often!

I do know that I’m not a super risk-averse person — I was high on the sensation-seeking test I used to administer to people when I was studying drug addiction during my PhD. But I’m in a bubble right now with my family, including my elderly parents (sorry, Mom and Dad!) and infant niece, so I’ve been much more cautious with my actions, keeping them in mind, than I might be if it was just my own health I was worried about.

That makes sense — I definitely feel extra cautious if I have plans to be in the vicinity of people who might be at a higher risk than I am. Sometimes it’s hard when you personally want to be more cautious than the people you’re around. We’ve talked in team meetings about parents or grandparents who say they would much rather spend this time with family than not see family, even if it means putting themselves at a higher risk. It’s a lot for the brain to navigate!
The parent/grandparent angle is so interesting! There was a lot written initially about how baby boomers weren’t taking the virus seriously, which is the opposite of what we usually think with people getting more cautious as they age. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure why that might be, but the urge to see family can be a huge motivator that potentially outweighs other concerns.

Can the brain actually become exhausted with this constant anxiety?
Yes, the brain can actually get overwhelmed with both stress and decision fatigue. With stress, the brain evolved to deal with acute stress — the tiger, the snake, whatever. That triggers hormones to cue your fight-or-flight response so you can deal with the threat immediately. But with chronic stress, the threat doesn’t resolve, and those hormones don’t drop. That can lead to something called allostatic load, where essentially your brain just gets burned out by remaining in this amped-up state, and that can take a real toll and cause physical changes in your brain and body.

I think I might have allostatic load. 🤯
I think we all do! The other thing we’re up against is decision fatigue—the idea that making choice after choice and exerting willpower eventually depletes you of your self-control. It’s the idea behind the candy selection right at the cash register in the grocery store. You’ve made so many decisions about which type of peanut butter or pasta to get, chosen your produce, actively avoided the chip and cookie aisles, that by the time you reach the cash register you’re exhausted. So, in your last choice, whether to get the impulse Snickers or not, you give in. To some extent, we’re dealing with that in the pandemic, too. You say no to so many things and have avoided the activities and places you want to go for so long that you start to wear down, and eventually you may give in to that last invitation to a pool party.

Wow. I feel like that is especially true as time goes on. Even though things are not necessarily better, depending on where you live, you can feel like, “I’ve done this for so long I am just really tired now.” I think you called this the “fuck it” stage.
Haha, yes, the fuck it stage. I was so glad Sarah (our editor-in-chief) let me keep that in — and even elevated it to a subhed!

Speaking of stress and decisions — what has covering this pandemic generally been like for you? How do you decide what to cover?
The first six weeks or so were a crazy adrenaline whirlwind trying to cover all the basics of the virus, but since then I’ve been able to slow down and be a bit more strategic about my coverage. Now I try to look for where the holes are. I’m lucky that Elemental isn’t a breaking-news organization — we really specialize in day (or week) two coverage. So, I can monitor the back-and-forth on what people are saying about kids’ susceptibility to the virus, for example, and then be able to write a piece synthesizing everything we know and try to explain why something might be happening, instead of having the writer (and reader) whiplash covering every single study.

You’ve written before about that whiplash and how that’s difficult as a science journalist. Has your view of study coverage in general changed at all during the pandemic?
I think before, covering other research, there was always context in which to put the new study. Covering something new and exciting is great, as long as you know where it stands in the literature. But with Covid-19, everything is brand new. The scientific process is happening in real time, and there’s virtually no context in which to place it (at least at first). Every study is either the new standard or the new anomaly.

What do you find most perplexing about Covid-19?
It’s the answer Fauci gave when asked this recently, and I agree with him: the diversity in symptoms, with some people being asymptomatic and others dying. It’s confounding.

Last question: In an alternate universe where you’re not covering Covid-19, what would you be writing about right now?
Oh man, we had so many big stories planned in March! The big ones I wanted to cover were changing attitudes toward death and aging, and drug use trends. I still hope to do those stories someday, but I think they’ll look very different from what I had first planned, which is interesting in and of itself!

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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