Our brain on coronavirus

A couple of days ago, the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky gave some good advice about coronavirus and how our brains make decisions.

The coronavirus means we have to make lots of decisions – Should we go into work? Should we panic buy toilet paper?

The brain makes decisions by running thought experiments, to decide what to do, imagining how things might turn out and how different outcomes would feel. The rational and emotional parts of the brain work together to do this.

But with the pandemic, we’re under stress. We feel stress because of a lack of control, or predictability of what’s going to happen, a lack of reliable information; because we have no outlets for our frustrations, and because we may lack social support.


We can make bad decisions under stress because our limbic systems (where are emotions are based) affect the rational decision making parts of our brains (the cortex) in certain ways.

The rational part becomes less able to constrain the emotional part. We become impulsive, less reflective, we make decisions with tunnel vision. We fall back on routines and automatic choices. We take out our stress on others, we can be aggressive. And we can narrow the circle of people who we count as “us” and who deserve empathy and consideration. We end up making more egotistical, selfish moral decisions.

So the advice is, be on your guard against the brain’s worst tendencies when under stress. Stop and think, make sensible reasonable decisions, in the best interests of everyone.

Blog written by: Prof. Michael Thomas

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