When Darnell Mitchell recently watched Die Hard, the classic 1988 action film starring Bruce Willis, he couldn’t stop grimacing at his television screen, but not at the violent scenes you might expect. Mitchell had seen the movie before, several years ago, but this time felt different. The characters’ actions seemed, somehow, cringier.
“I was like, Why am I reacting this way? What’s happening?” Mitchell recounted to me recently. “And then I realized: Oh, I’m actually reacting to each time they touch their face.”
Mitchell, a stylist, lives in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Like many Americans sequestered in their home, Mitchell has spent the past month heeding the dos and don’ts for protecting himself from the virus, including the advice to avoid touching your face. “I was like, Bruce, get it together. What’s happening? Did you not watch the news?” Mitchell said. “Now almost every single TV show or movie makes me slightly uncomfortable when I watch it, because the entire time, I’m thinking about it.”
Sometime in the past few months, as social-distancing measures tightened across the country, many of us, like Mitchell, discovered new, pandemic-specific tics. Keyla Eusebio, a college-admissions officer in Rhode Island, told me that she first felt them in mid-March. Steven Kast, a computer-science student in Ohio, noticed them in early April. The sight of two people shaking hands. Someone touching their uncovered face. A group of people hanging out less than six feet apart. Mundane behaviors they would not have thought twice about previously now trigger sudden, visceral reactions—of discomfort or disgust, fear or indignation—whether they’re occurring on-screen or in real life. It almost seems as if the response to the pandemic has somehow, quietly and without warning, rewired our brains.