Pharmacy on Oxford Street selling face masks.Coronavirus outbreak, London, UK. - 6 Mar 2020

For most citizens of the world, the real-world impact of the coronavirus is in its early stages. Schools are shutting down, sports leagues are suspending their seasons, and grocery shelves are being stripped of basic supplies — but we should expect it to get worse before it gets better. Already, we’re experiencing fear such as we haven’t felt for quite a while. We’ll make it through, but the pandemic’s psychological impact is going to remain in a distinctive way.

Give a quick thought back to your last birthday celebration. Do you remember what you had for dinner? I’m willing to bet you don’t. In fact, as far as your recollection goes, that dinner might as well never have taken place.

So, what’s the difference? Antonio Damasio coined the neuroscientific term for it: “Somatic Marker.”

A Somatic Marker is a psychological process that controls your decision-making, an emotional bookmark so powerful that you’ll never forget it. A shortcut to survival, it bypasses logical considerations when you bump into a tiger in a jungle. A thoughtful evaluation of whether to pet the tiger is not an optimal survival strategy. The Somatic Marker says: Run!

Sept. 11, 2001, was just such a Somatic Marker. We remember where we were when we heard the news, who we were with, the first person each of us called. It still has a profound impact on our lives. When we travel, we simply accept grumbling under our breath at TSA, taking off our shoes in Security, packing tiny shampoos into ridiculous plastic bags, and keeping a watchful eye out for suspicious people and bags. After 9/11, mall traffic went down, we accepted increased surveillance, and debates about immigration skyrocketed. 

Sept. 11 came at us with terrifying suddenness, while the coronavirus has crept up on us over a few weeks. And yet, 9/11 and the coronavirus have definite similarities. The coronavirus’ long-term consequences are likely to be just as profound as those of 9/11 — if not even bigger.

In the course of my neuroscience work, I’ve used fMRI to scan several thousand consumer brains. Surprisingly, this work points to a particular region, the amygdala, that increasingly seems to rule the human brain. The amygdala, also called the “fear center,” seems to come into play in association with negative Somatic Markers.

Whereas my research team rarely came across the amygdala a decade ago, in the last few years we’ve noticed this region firing up more and more frequently. Test subjects increasingly show activation in the amygdala when they are online, especially when they hear politicians talk. Security, crime, fake news, personality theft, sexual harassment, food poisoning — even the loss of one’s phone — all activate the amygdala.

The scary part is, we’ve learned that all this is cumulative. The more we’re exposed to fear, the more fearful we become. This is true even when there’s no relationship among the various fear-generating topics. Our scientific results support the theory that fear, if it is profound enough, becomes a Somatic Marker. This points to one conclusion: Just like 9/11, coronavirus is causing a major behavioral change in our society. 

The victims? Malls, concerts, sporting events, brick-and-mortar retail, restaurant buffets, every kind of public space. These venues once seemed to be dependable elements in our lives, but with the hit of a Somatic Marker, they are likely to be changed and replaced…forever.

As much as we love those places, the negative Somatic Marker the world’s population has installed in our brains over the past few days is likely to have a powerful, lasting impact on how we behave. We’re likely to shop differently, touch the shopping cart differently, visit fitting rooms differently, touch elevator buttons differently. And those are relatively trivial changes. Consider train stations, airports, political rallies, and demonstrations. We might call it a paradigm shift. In many cases, it will weaken and even replace entire industries and institutions. 

Martin Lindstrom

Martin Lindstrom  Courtesy

When it comes to malls, stores, shopping and entertainment, the coronavirus can be counted on to escalate the replacement of conventional brick-and-mortar models with digital. Old industries will collapse, as the space they dominated is completely redefined.

Here’s the fact: The amygdala is like a chronic disease. Once you’re infected by it, not only will it be with you forever. It is likely to grow.

But we’ve discovered over the years that fear contains yet another dimension, which may go a long way to explaining the state of the world right now. Fear amplifies and spreads fake news. Our brain possesses multiple centers that are capable of many different tasks; but the amygdala is unique, as it contains just one unique skill. It overrides anything and everything we do or even contemplate doing. It is like an emergency breaker switch, no questions asked, applying little or no logic, paralyzing everything else.

Worst of all, we’re all hardwired to respond to fear this way. 

The coronavirus will eventually fade away, but the frightening reality is that the emotional impact of the virus is likely to remain, infusing itself into our subconscious minds. It will create an even shorter shortcut, ready to take over the next time something fearful happens.

We can count on it. Coronavirus won’t be the last frightening event we face. Next time, our fear tolerance will be a bit lower. Fear will create an even bigger ripple effect throughout the world. We’ll continue on this journey, transforming how life will be — forever.

Martin Lindstrom is a branding expert and best-selling author of “Small Data.”

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