Watching a rerun of the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld gave me the first inkling that COVID-19 might be rearranging my mind for the long term. On the screen, the characters sat across the table from each other at Monk’s Café. Kramer flopped into the frame, draping his arm around another occupied chair. As his arm touched another person, I physically recoiled.
By then, my hometown of New Orleans was a few weeks into the pandemic, and I was already stepping off the curb whenever a stranger approached. If someone slipped by my paranoia and caught me unaware on the sidewalk, I held my breath and rolled my eyes as they barged past. Those behaviors felt natural, even though by mid-March, scientists were already pointing out the low risk of coronavirus transmission in the outdoors. All of my friends reported feeling something similar, and one told me that she had to turn off the TV if a subway scene came on. We’re not alone. Even as some states begin to reopen, most Americans—regardless of political affiliation—say that they’re uncomfortable going into crowded situations, indoors and out, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
Neuroscientists and psychologists propose that people aren’t cringing around strangers and crowds because of pre-existing senses of fear or disgust. Instead, many in society are simultaneously learning a new emotional experience.
The process of building an emotion is our brain’s way of putting our visceral, real-world experiences into context, so we can better categorize the forest of anxieties growing around us. These mental reactions don’t even need to involve a first-hand encounter with the coronavirus, says Lisa Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “You can just read about it in the paper, or someone can tell you about it,” she adds. After “you’ve learned that somebody contracted COVID and died because they were in a crowd, it doesn’t take much for your brain to learn that contingency.”
To understand why people are developing strong aversions to crowds, it helps to unravel the difference between experiencing an emotion and a reflexive discomfort. And if history is our guide, it’s possible people will simply “unlearn” aversions to crowds once the pandemic quiets down.
When does a knee-jerk become emotion?
Just because someone experiences a jolt at the sight of a crowd doesn’t necessarily mean that they are instinctively afraid of it. The transformation from a knee-jerk reaction to an emotion comes later and with repetition, as your brain learns to classify this new situation and sensation.
“Your body is always sending information about the state of bodily systems back to the brain. You experience those sensations as a gut feeling of calm and comfort, or a gut feeling of being really jittery or distressed,” Barrett says. “Most people call this gut feeling mood—scientists call it affect.”
Barrett’s research has found that emotions don’t feel the same from person to person, or even within a single person over time. The concept of fear is a set of instances that your brain is capable of giving the same name. There’s the nausea that comes with fear of heights, but there’s also the thrill of a roller coaster, or the cold dread when a floorboard creaks in an otherwise empty house. Our brain connects all of those experiences by labeling them as fear. That’s why it feels like a fear can manifest as anything from an icy pit in the stomach and a frozen feeling to a desire to scream and run.
Due to the pandemic and the invisible threat of asymptomatic spreaders, people are learning how to categorize the uncomfortable feeling of being in crowds or seeing someone breaking the social norms of COVID-19, Barrett says. Their minds are looking for the right label.
What I’ve started to experience as fear or disgust while watching crowds on television, someone else might manifest as anger. A third person might simply feel the urge to educate the crowd about social distancing and wouldn’t think of it as emotional at all. (Face-mask recognition has arrived—for better or worse.)
A rainbow of gut reflexes
Animals can offer some clues as to why those various gut reflexes develop in the first place. Research by the neuroscientist Cornelius Gross on mouse and monkey brains suggests that different reactions to danger operate through independent pathways in animal brains. He says it’s reasonable to believe that a similar situation applies to humans, given some brain architecture is evolutionarily conserved across mammals.
“Fear of touching a stove because it’s hot [or the] fear of somebody who’s looking sternly at you is a very different thing from fear of a predator,” says Gross, who directs the Rome Branch of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
He suspects these various response pathways exist because threats to our existence come with different levels of risk, and our minds try to adapt to each in turn. Unsurprisingly, once your brain has decided that an unmasked person is physically dangerous, says Gross, it’s going to sound the alarm bells every time you see or come across one. “I think it’s because you’ve just imposed on people this sense of contagion and threat,” he says. Some people understand that threat as connected to the bodies of others, and feel the danger physically.
This kind of learning happens all the time. Feeling nauseous at the thought of a dish that once brought on a bout of food poisoning is essentially the same thing as the squickiness you may now experience when someone gets too close in a crowd. (Here's why our minds can't make sense of COVID-19's enormous death toll.)
Humans have co-opted these gut reactions that protect our physical safety, and in America, they tend to be used to relate to the way people understand cultural and social constructs, according to Erika Siegel, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the relationship between physiology and emotion. In American culture, Siegel says, we often talk about social taboos using the language of disgust: murder most foul, morally repugnant. “People will, on a regular basis, describe people that they find morally objectionable as making them feel like they’re going to throw up.” In this pandemic era, a crowd doesn’t have to be actually dangerous to provoke one of these responses—it might just be triggered by seeming like the wrong choice.
A revulsion to crowds now can manifest even in people who haven’t had a friend or family member with the virus, thanks to the capacity for empathy. Gross points to research on “mirror-like neurons” that appear to allow rats to experience pain when another rat is zapped, and psychological research seconds the idea that anxiety after disasters—such as outbreaks or mass shootings—is closely linked to reading or watching news about the event. That’s why images of crowds or casual touching on television end up being unsettling. Imagine, Gross says, watching someone else touch a hot stove, and the immediate flinch that comes with it.
“Humans have this incredible capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of other people,” Gross says.
Where are we headed?
In spite of the emotional intensity of the pandemic, research on other moments of collective stress and anxiety suggest that the gut-level drive to socially distance might be temporary. That could be because memory is fleeting, or because most people are adaptable in ways they don’t realize. Either way, the historical precedent is stark.
“It’s amazing how quickly people forgot the Spanish Flu,” says Peter Stearns, a historian of emotion at George Mason University. “There’s a study of the American reactions to Spanish Flu that argues the only permanent change that resulted was schools stopped using common glasses for drinks.”
That study, by local historian Judith Johnson, is based on Kansas’ response to the 1918 flu pandemic. Johnson noted that health officials tried to get local governments to fund public hospitals to care for flu victims, but that the proposal was shelved when the disease burned out. During the height, she notes, children would “walk around someone’s yard to avoid a home where there was flu,” and thousands of businesses were closed to contain the spread. When the orders were lifted, though, the policies quickly faded from memory. All that was left were Dixie cups, which had replaced the communal drinking glasses in schools.
That might also be because the 1918 flu was the last “classic pandemic” that touched all parts of American society—until COVID-19. Now, Stearns wonders whether this pandemic might leave a bigger psychic mark due to modern media. Our exposure to the sheer volume of news and data about the pandemic is completely unlike the media that covered the 1918 flu.
Some of Stearns’ research suggests that people are more likely to react to similar events with fear as time has passed. Based on his 2006 book American Fear, in which he compared newspaper stories and other historical accounts of Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terrorist attacks, he says that “you can make a pretty good case for fears being more intense after 9/11.” In newspaper accounts and oral histories from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, those interviewed tended to acknowledge that “times would be tough,” but said they were confident that American leadership would pull the country through. By contrast, those interviewed after 9/11 were more likely to describe feeling fear and anxiety about the future.
George Bonanno is a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University who studies those who rebound from trauma and grief without lasting symptoms. He says that the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be harder to predict, because he thinks the pandemic is more like a chronic stress than a sharp trauma. (Here’s why some people can't resist crowds despite the pandemic.)
His work has found that the majority of people recover from acute stress—terror attacks, SARS hospitalizations, deaths of close family—with few lasting symptoms of trauma. But “we don’t tend to do very well with chronic stress. We become discombobulated.” This stress isn’t a monolith; people who only experience mild panic about avoiding others in public are not feeling the same constant pressures as those who have lost a loved one or a job—or people who are forced to keep working in salons or restaurants to make ends meet.
Still, he says, most people show traits he calls “regulatory flexibility,” which allow them to recognize the context for their concerns, develop coping strategies, and monitor their own responses. “We’ve found that the majority of people are reasonably good at all three of these things, and we find that some people have noticeable deficits in one or more of them.”
Neuroscientist Barrett thinks that even if we remember COVID-19 clearly decades after the pandemic ends, the fears that have come along with it won’t last.
You may never have thought twice about a large gathering, but "now you've learned that crowds where people aren't wearing masks are dangerous," she says. "But once the virus is under control, your brain will recalibrate."