Coronavirus: Inside the brains of panicked shoppers


Three days after the World Health Organization characterized the spread of COVID-19 as a pandemic, the checkout line at the Loblaws at Leslie and Lakeshore wrapped around half the store’s perimeter, and three employees directed traffic.

A day after that, the store’s shelves had been emptied of meat, pasta, canned soup and, of course, toilet paper. Customers were grabbing toilet paper straight off a pallet being used to restock shelves.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, pushed a shopping cart overflowing with items. She had just returned from a vacation in Mexico and was going into self-isolation with her husband and child.

“I actually don’t know what two weeks of food even looks like,” she said, adding that she was shopping for her own family and her parents, who are over 65 and more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Similar scenes, which prompted Ontario health minister Christine Elliott and agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman to assure citizens “our food supply is robust,” played out across the country in downtown Vancouver.

Just a half-hour after the local Costco opened, one man could be seen emptying a huge shopping cart full of toilet paper into his trunk. A few minutes later, a seemingly endless parade of exiting customers whizzed by with more shopping buggies. They too were laden with monstrously large packages of the white stuff.

When some were approached, the fear on their faces was palpable. They were in no mood to be interviewed. They were in too much of a hurry to reach their vehicles and get the hell out of danger.

The pandemonium in grocery aisles suggests that something quite unusual is going inside people’s brains. There have been tremendous scientific advances in recent years – thanks in part to brain-imaging studies – that offer insights into why human beings behave in odd ways when facing an external threat in a highly charged, emotional environment.

The science of panic

Health officials in both provinces said the risk of COVID-19 was low for Canadians, but the situation could change. People have been advised to practise social distancing and contact public health authorities if they experience symptoms – fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

By Tuesday, public health officials had evidence of community spread. Ontario premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in the province, which had 189 cases as of press time. Organized public events of over 50 people have been prohibited, many establishments were forced to close until March 31, but restaurants offering takeout/delivery, grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores remain open.

Ford was careful to note the move was not a “provincial shutdown” – a seeming reference to a viral hoax that spread on Sunday night that likely sent more people out on panic-buying trips.

Retired University of British Columbia clinical assistant professor of psychiatry Elisabeth Zoffmann describes the mass buying of toilet paper as “the most lemming-like behaviour I’ve ever seen.”

Zoffmann, who has a keen interest in the behaviour of crowds, sees parallels in this activity and how people lose their “thinking brains” in sports riots. A similar phenomenon also occurs during massive and emotional religious events, where some have been crushed or killed in the bedlam.

“The hysterical purchasing of masses of toilet paper defies logic,” Zoffmann says over the phone from her home on Vancouver Island. “Nowhere has anybody said that the illness [COVID-19] is a diarrhea illness. It’s not marked by diarrhea. That’s the only reason why you would want toilet paper.”

She added that this isn’t the only “instinctive, impulsive and overwhelmingly irrational” act associated with the pandemic. There’s also the run on paper masks, which public-health experts have repeatedly advised people not to wear.

It’s still necessary to use hands to adjust and take off the mask. And if their hands aren’t clean, Zoffmann said, those wearing masks are more apt to contract the virus.

“If there is a droplet spread and it’s stuck to your mask, one moist breath is a great medium for it to keep going into your body,” she noted.

Zoffmann attributes panic buying to evolutionary biology. The forebrain, she explains, developed long after other parts of the brain. The forebrain includes the cerebral cortex, which is associated with complex thinking and voluntary motor activities.

This part of the brain is engaged when people are reading information distributed by health organizations outlining the importance of keeping a distance from others, washing your hands frequently, coughing into your sleeve and not touching your face to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The forebrain also processes comments by respiratory experts who say that about 80 per cent of people who develop the disease will not get very sick. That can alleviate some of the conscious fears. As will the knowledge that – as of this writing – there have been 7,864 deaths in the world and that the country (as of press time) with the highest prevalence, Italy, has 0.0045 per cent of the population infected.

Moreover, when experts note the vast majority of those who die are elderly, you might assume that it would diminish the personal fears of millennials – if not for worries about friends with compromised immune systems or parents and grandparents.

Similarly, the forebrain can process broader information about the pandemic, such as the success that Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea have demonstrated in preventing the catastrophes that unfolded in Italy and parts of China.

A negativity bias, however, tends to lead human beings to fear the absolute worst-case scenario, even though COVID-19 is not affecting each country the same way. That bias was reinforced by one particularly frightening interview.

On Joe Rogan’s podcast, University of Minnesota’s director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, Michael Osterholm, predicted 96 million cases of COVID-19 over the next three to seven months. Osterholm also forecasted 48 million hospitalizations and more than 480,000 deaths, which would be a 64-fold increase over the number to date.

One of the problems, Zoffmann points out, is that many people actually go through their days without using their forebrain. Instead, they often do things without deliberating, relying instead on their intuition.

“There’s a perfectly functioning brain underneath the forebrain, which immediately takes in visual, auditory and other such clues, knits them together – makes sense of them – and, if necessary, directs an impulse of action,” she insists. “It’s heavily influenced by other brains around it doing the same thing.”

Mass behaviour isn’t uncommon in the animal kingdom. Schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of mammals suddenly dart in the same direction when a predator is in their midst.

Humans don’t always have to be in close physical proximity to respond in a similar manner to perceived threats, Zoffmann says, especially when their senses are being overwhelmed, inhibiting the forebrain from functioning properly. Constant television news coverage of the pandemic, for example, can elevate stress.

“You can create mobs through social media,” she emphasized.

In the meantime, the mass buying of canned goods isn’t making life any easier for food banks. In Metro Vancouver, Backpack Buddies, which feeds 1,300 low-income schoolchildren on weekends, has issued a plea for people to think of their neighbours. That’s because it’s no longer able to receive the food that it’s ordered.

In Etobicoke, the Daily Bread Food Bank had to pitch a tent in partnership with GlobalMedic outside its regular building in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s of utmost importance to the community that we don’t lose sight of the most vulnerable, and we need to keep them at the front of our minds when we’re buying on the shelf,” Backpack Buddies cofounder Emily-anne King says. “Maybe buy an extra can that you can donate somewhere.”

“Scared shitless” by coronavirus

But what accounts for the fear on the faces of some panic buyers? One of the world’s leading authorities on the neuroscience of fear is Joseph LeDoux, the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at New York University and the author of several books, including The Deep History Of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story Of How We Got Our Conscious Brains.

When contacted by phone in Callicoon, New York, LeDoux confessed that, like everyone else, he’s “scared shitless” by the novel coronavirus. That’s due in part to his age – he’s 70 years old, elevating his risk of mortality were he to contract COVID-19 (along with those who have severe chronic medical conditions).

For nearly 40 years, he’s studied the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain where neural activity increases in responses to threats. That, in turn, leads to body responses, such as increased heart rate. He explained that this occurs beneath the level of consciousness.

“The amygdala is not a fear centre,” says LeDoux. “It’s a system in the brain that detects and responds to danger. But fear is our awareness that we’re in danger.”

In a 2016 paper, Using Neuroscience To Help Understand Fear And Anxiety: A Two-System Framework, LeDoux and Daniel Pine maintain that “research on threat processing has not led to significant improvements in clinical practice.”

They used the term fear to describe feelings that occur when a threat is perceived to be immediate or imminent, such as with the novel coronavirus. Anxiety was defined to describe feelings “when the source of harm is uncertain or is distal in space or time.”

In the paper, which was published in the American Journal Of Psychiatry, LeDoux and Pine argue there is little understanding of the “two-system framework.” On the one hand, there are behavioural responses and accompanying physiological changes in the body, which largely occur unconsciously. Then there are conscious, self-reported states of fear and anxiety.

“You have these prefrontal circuits,” LeDoux says. “They are able to conceptualize that you are in danger. The harm is going to happen to you. If you don’t know the snake is going to bite you, then you’re not afraid. Fear has to be that involvement of you as part of the experience.”

This is, in fact, a reflective awareness of oneself, something that retired University of Toronto cognitive neuroscientist Endel Tulving called autonoetic consciousness. That involves a higher level of brain calculation.

“It’s not just the past and the future, but your personal past and your personal future,” LeDoux says. “That’s a very complicated thing.”

His work builds on 19th-century English naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin, who pointed out that humans inherited ancient systems from animals. Where LeDoux and Darwin part, however, is over Darwin’s conclusion that because an animal and a human being behave in a similar way, they must therefore share the same feelings.

Darwin’s viewpoint has contributed to others concluding that the ancient brain circuit makes people feel fear and drives the response. But LeDoux says this overlooks the role of conscious experiences, including working memory, which holds diverse pieces of information.

“Bacteria don’t have any fear when they detect and respond to danger,” LeDoux declares. “They’re just protecting themselves and surviving. The same thing with our amygdala. It allows us to detect danger and to stay alive. But fear is a much more recent thing in our brain.”

That leads to the obvious question: why are so many people loading up on toilet paper?

“I don’t mean this in a dismissive or demeaning way, but it’s all in your head,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s how we understand what’s going on.”

Moreover, he says a sense of peril can be generated top-down from the conscious mind.

“Once that thought is there, we’re running with it. That stuff fills your mind and you can’t get it out. It’s contagious. Fear is very contagious between people.”

LeDoux and Pine aren’t the only researchers to advance a two-system framework for understanding how human minds function. Princeton University professor emeritus and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has long maintained there are two modes of thinking, which he describes as “system one” and “system two.”

In his 2011 bestseller, Thinking, Fast And Slow, Kahneman described system one as intuitive, performing automatic activities. System two is deliberative and involves the exertion of effort, which can be impaired when there are too many stimuli.

People who develop a great deal of expertise in a subject, such as practising anaesthesiology or playing chess, develop intuitive responses to a set of circumstances, based on past feedback. Things that might involve deliberative thought for most of the population become effortless and automatic for them.

The same can be said of driving. Over time, a motorist learns intuitive responses to situations that would cause a novice to respond with a great deal of deliberative thought.

In a videotaped message to Google employees on YouTube, Kahneman noted there are certain situations, like turning left into traffic, that should never be done intuitively.

One of the drawbacks of intuition, Kahneman says in the video, is that people’s intuitive conclusions in system one are not necessarily true. They are also often confident in judgments that are not necessarily true.

“Subjective confidence, which is closely related to the probability of being correct, is actually not a judgment at all,” Kahneman says. “It is a feeling.”

But if the mind constructs a coherent story, he adds, confidence remains high.

“Now, this is disastrous in some ways because you can make a very coherent story out of very little information and out of information that is not reliable.”

Like emptying store shelves of toilet paper because of a pandemic that will not give people the runs and has so far infected a very small percentage of Canadians.

Zoffmann says Kahneman’s book encapsulates her ideas about the biological basis of mass behaviour by humans.

“It should be required reading for anybody who can read,” she said. “It is a biological reality that we have a new brain that has the capacity to stop and think. But mostly what it does is play catch-up to the instant decisions made by the older brain.”

With files from Radheyan Simonpillai

Charlie Smith is the editor of the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver. This is the first of many in-depth national features that will appear simultaneously in Media Central Corporation’s Toronto and Vancouver newspapers, NOW and the Georgia Straight, the two largest free-distribution papers in Canada.