A colleague recently admitted by a Zoom call in the morning that she had forgotten how old she was. “No really!” she said wide-eyed and sincere. “I had to think about it and figure it out.”
Time and memory have become a bit murky. For many, the pandemic has caused days, even years, to blur out to one. The main culprit: days of uniformity, a hallmark of the coronavirus pandemic, as many jobs were removed, we traveled much less, and our interaction with most people went digital. Your last birthday party may have been spent in a Zoom meeting with friends and family, in the same part of your house that serves as your office.
“It may seem counterintuitive that your memory would get worse if you did less every day. If less happens, shouldn’t it be easier to remember?” say Janice Chen, an assistant professor of psychology and brain science at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and an expert in episodic memory. “But when every day has a lot of overlapping elements like being in the same room, having the same routine, talking to the same people, then the memories of those events or days interfere with each other and make the memory worse. There are fewer unique signals to to trigger your memory for a particular day or thing you did. “
“When every day has a lot of overlapping elements like being in the same room, having the same routine, talking to the same people, then the memories of those events or days interfere with each other and make the memory worse.”
Psychology and brain science
There is growing evidence of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our perception of time and memory, both past and future. A study from September 2021 noted that 150 female first-year psychology students at an Italian university found a significant decrease in both working memory and future memory (intentions or future planning) during the previous year. And an ongoing study led by cognitive neuroscientist Donna Rose Addis at the University of Toronto has surveyed 735 people globally to determine what impact the pandemic, if any, has had on how people remember their past and imagine their future. In May 2021, participants were asked to recall an event they had described to researchers a year earlier. 75 percent of people could remember the general idea of the event. They knew, for example, that they were going on a certain trip somewhere. But only half could remember fine details, such as the weather that day or who they were with.
Nearly 70% of respondents felt that their days were very similar and that day-to-day uniformity was associated with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms in people who had not previously had depression. The same people also saw their future as more limited. The more monotonous their days were, the more negative and less detailed their thoughts about the future.
Chen says episodic or autobiographical memory requires you to mentally travel to a particular moment, and if you can not, it just becomes a fact you know. “I know I must have made coffee yesterday, but I have no concrete memory of it. You can’t really place that moment,” she says.
What helps embed or anchor memories, psychologists say, are emotions, news and unique markers, like a song played in the background, or the seasonal heat of a morning jog. For autobiographical memory, emotions play a very strong role in making moments of your life vivid memories – think 9/11, a presidential assassination, the day you met the love of your life.
Ian Phillips, who explores the intersection of philosophy and psychological sciencesays the absence of conspicuous markers – events like a trip abroad that creates a sense of “before” and “after” – also makes it harder to remember how long it has been since an event took place.
“If you try to tell the story of the last two to three years, the story for many of us has not been gripping,” says Phillips, professor of philosophy and psychology and brain science at the Krieger School. “Personally, I spent a lot of time at my desk holding Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, and it’s not a particularly interesting story to tell – or remember.”
When asked how the pandemic memory fog will affect us going forward, the researchers interviewed for this piece do not expect any lasting effects, saying that when our lives return to normal, so will the texture of our memories. They also say that people will remember this time differently based on their situations. Some of us will struggle to remember details of the pandemic period as a trip to the mall, but those who have experienced major traumas – serious illness, the death of a family member, financial upheavals – will not have the privilege of forgetting.
“But I do not worry that people will not be able to get on the horse again when our environment changes again,” Chen says. “The principles of memory remain the same. I think people will adapt.”
Phillips adds that the creation of markers to embed memories is very much within our control. For the memory smear, he encourages people to try new things, get outside, meet people and break out of routines. “When you do more, it allows you to accurately and healthily judge when, where and what happened to you.”
And for better or worse, do not forget how old you are.