Ask a Reporter: How Your Brain Navigates a Pandemic

A quick interview with science reporter and brain expert Dana Smith

Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog
7 min readAug 6, 2020

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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

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Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog

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