COVID-19: Tired in 20 minutes!

Photo and text by Susanne Gold

How will we be in a few weeks’ time, how will the people and nations, the trade and economy of the world feel?

That is probably the question many earthlings are asking themselves at the moment. Against the background of the pandemic and its consequences, we are all thinking about the future. And – are tired of it very quickly! Not only that – many of us suffer from headaches!

This way of thinking makes us tired after about twenty minutes. Why?

As we know, the interrelations and consequences of the pandemic are complex, global and difficult to understand. If we try to assess the consequences and make prognoses for our future, we try our rational brain, our way of thinking “System 2”, as the Nobel Prize winner, psychologist and cognitive researcher Daniel Kahnemann calls it.

Our future brain “System 2” tries to grasp the consequences of the global situation reflexively and in all its contexts.

While we understand that events will have a major impact on our future, we can hardly grasp the totality of the consequences, since they affect so many areas of our social and economic life – and they are global in scope. This is almost as if we wanted to understand the global Internet in all its facets.

Our “System 2” tires quickly, because during this kind of thinking the glucose level in our brain drops rapidly. The consequences are headaches and – after about twenty minutes – tiredness! This effect is also called “ego-depletion” by cognition researchers.

In contrast to us humans, an artificial intelligence would be quite capable of assessing the consequences, recognizing correlations and making forecasts. In seconds, it can sift through millions of data, recognize correlations and make forecasts – without getting tired. The added value of an artificial cognitive system becomes very clear here: The future brain “System 2” of an artificial intelligence does not fatigue after twenty minutes.

Our exhaustion may be caused less by the drama of the situation than by our inability to understand it.

At all times there have been epidemics. Humans have coped with them. Until today, ways and means have been found to overcome them again and again, because it is especially in crises that people unfold their incredible potential for improvisation and innovation.

However, the complexity of the global situation and our inability to assess the individual consequences are straining us. We all fear that the virus will cause individual suffering.

Many of us are afraid! But when we step outside our homes, the world outside seems almost as it was before the pandemic. No dramatic film music resounds when we enter the supermarket – armed with gloves and under supposedly life-threatening circumstances.

How can a worldwide catastrophe be so tiny and quiet?

Outside, no oversized virus appears, which attacks us – snarling our teeth. The idea of being put out of action by something as tiny as a virus is incredibly abstract and for our brain: it is information that is not easy to process.

If there were a large virus with a wide open throat in front of us, on the other hand, our future brain “System 1” would be activated, as Kahnemann calls our emotional thinking, and we would be able to cope better with the assessment of the situation. Why?

Our brain of the future – “System 1” is, according to the researcher, our spontaneous and instinctively working brain.

“System 1” senses immediate dangers, developments, but also possibilities in our environment and lets us react very quickly.

The future brain “System 1” ensures our survival – it made us react to attacks by sabre-toothed tigers, whose prey we once were, or quickly kill prey ourselves when they jumped in front of our spears.

Cognitive researchers call this intellectual achievement “emotional heuristics”. It works instinctively and enables us to make rough but spontaneous assessments of the current situation, which ensures our survival.

Thinking about the pandemic puts a strain on our future brain “System 2”, not “System 1”, because the danger is not obviously in front of us.

I suspect that in this situation our “System 1” – spurred on by the flood of information in the social media, news and by political measures – constantly reports “danger” to our intuitive “System 2”. But this system is not able to process the message and to derive corresponding prognoses for action, because the threat is surreal and abstract.

If COVID-19 looked like a giant saber-toothed tiger, we would probably react differently and would agree on how to react. This is how I explain many of the amazing reactions of my fellow human beings to the current situation.

What helps me?

I breathe, I meditate, pay attention to exercise and nutrition and – I blog. I am also grateful for all the things I have – for example, that I have hardly ever had to use my future brain “System 1” in my life: I am one of those people who have not had to endure threats, war, hunger or other disasters. Even if I stay at home – I lead a privileged life in historical and (unfortunately still in) global comparison. More than ever, I want to work for a better world with our collection of utopias.


Susanne Gold

Founder and owner of the future and science blog “Utopia Collector”.

The science journalist is a keynote speaker for a new understanding of the human work force and a successful human-machine cooperation.

Contact her? Either by mail or simply follow her on LinkedIn.

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