The corona virus: prehistoric brains, predictive overdrive, and the power of play

The world is scared. Scared that the end is near, that God is punishing us, or that we’ll run out of toilet paper. We are experiencing mass anxiety on an unprecedented scale. It is global, there is no getting away from it. And even if there was somewhere to go you wouldn’t be able to get there, because up to 90% (!) of all air travel has been suspended. I’m not an epidemiologist, not an infectious disease expert, not a physician, and not Donald Trump (who has ‘a natural ability for science’, because his uncle was a professor at MIT). So, I can’t tell you if we’re going to be OK, or if this is the prologue to some end-of-days, apocalyptic mass extinction event. But I am a neuroscientist so I can tell you why not knowing how dangerous COVID-19 actually is, freaks us out even more than knowing for sure that it is dangerous.

Stayin’ alive

Our brains thrive on predictability. The more predictable an environment is, the easier it is for our brains to know how to behave to stay safe. Because from an evolutionary perspective, our brains only have one goal: to keep us alive. Nowadays there is an abundance of technology available to help us make predictions about safety. But way back in prehistoric times, when we didn’t have any of that, we still had to know if something was delicious or malicious, nutritious or poisonous, friendly or deadly. This was not that complicated when dangers were clear, tangible and visible. A wild animal. A poisonous plant. A rival tribe. We knew exactly how dangerous these things were, so could take adequate measures to avoid (or attack) them. This is not the case with the corona virus. Nobody seems to know exactly how dangerous this virus is. If we did, we could figure out ways to cope. We would be able to figure out some sort of strategy to deal with it. But right now, nobody seems to know exactly what this virus does. Not even our nations’ leaders. Some people have it but don’t show any symptoms. Others die. That is a level of unpredictability that our brains cannot handle very well. At first, we thought only the elderly got really sick. Then we heard up to 50% of all people admitted to ICUs are younger than 50 years old. We heard most people only have ‘mild to moderate symptoms.’ Then we heard ‘mild to moderate’ in this case could also mean walking pneumonia, which feels far from mild. And, most importantly, nobody can tell us when this will all be over.

Predictive overdrive

We live in a digital, data-driven world full of predictive algorithms. We have gotten used to graphs and tables telling us the likelihood of events, and the most favorable course of action. But now, these graphs and tables keep changing. Not every day, but almost every hour. This has sent our brains into overdrive.

What does this mean? What can we do? Is this how we die?

Here’s the thing. Because our brains have gone into predictive overdrive, because we have very little information to hang onto, most of us are operating from a worst-case scenario. Humans aren’t rational beings to begin with, but we’ve taken it to the next level. And it’s not our fault. It’s evolution. Our prehistoric brains have taken over. Our neocortex, the rational part of our brains, is being overruled by our reptile brains. It is making us follow our most basic instincts, like hoarding, to keep ourselves safe.

Conscious rationality and play

As difficult as it may be, we should really try to be consciously rational. Remember that your own brain is not a reliable source right now. The situation is serious, but try to look at your objective reality, not your imagined one. Wash your hands. Cough into your elbow. Follow the social distancing guidelines, but don’t forget to talk to each other. Share your experiences. Connect with each other, even if it is not possible physically. Be grateful we live in an era of hyperconnectivity. Facetime, Zoom, Skype. Science clearly indicates that social support has many physical and mental benefits.

And, most importantly: find ways to play. With your kids at home, with your friends online. It will not prevent you from getting sick, but it will most definitely help you deal more effectively with the unpredictability that will be part of our daily lives for the foreseeable future. Play allows us to let go for a minute, to enter a magic circle in which the rules and limitations of the real world don’t apply. Even if you cannot be together in the physical world, you can spend time together in the game world. Where you won’t have to worry about running out of toilet paper.