Kirichenko D. The COVID-19 lockdowns will have profound consequences on our memories. Harvard Public Health Review. 2021; 29.
Over the last year, many of us have found ourselves, many of us have found ourselves partaking in the same daily routines; the effects are gradual, but the loss of novelty in our lives is unmistakable. While some people have been isolated at home, others have been fighting to save lives while risking their own in emergency rooms. Whether we are front line workers dealing with COVID-19 or someone who has lost a loved one, or even trying to raise a family and educate our children – we are all experiencing stress and trauma. In addition to the long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health, our perception of time and the formation of our memories are being impacted. Therefore, finding ways to combat or ameliorate the effects of memory degradation under lockdowns is essential.
We can all agree that time has been passing by in a strange manner since we went into lockdown, and our perception of time is crucial in the formation of memories. It has become harder to differentiate the workday from personal time – and even weekdays from weekends when no day is different from the next. The covid-19 pandemic is causing long-term ramifications regarding mental health. The effects are gradual, but the loss of novelty in our lives is unmistakable. It also impacts our ability to form new memories, leading us to feeling that time is moving faster than it once was (Ogden, 2020).
Research suggests that the perceived passage of time is related to the amount of new perceptual information you absorb or going through a life threatening event may lead to a richer encoding of the memory (Eagleman et al., 2005). As children, everything seems new. Every year brings a different teacher, classroom, friends, and experiences. The brain has more to process and is constantly building new mental models to understand the world. With the increase in new information, the passage of time feels longer. Children can still have monotonous routines, but they’re still encountering novelty and learning new things (Eagleman, 2009).
Time means different things to different people; some are conscious of the shrinking time ahead as they age, while others don’t seem to mind its passing (Bejan, 2019). Time is the medium through which we live our lives, and it is particular salient because we don’t know how much of it we have, and it is the medium through which we live our lives. Our emotional state of mind, the pace at which we live, and many other factors influence the way in which we experience time (Droit-Volet, 2013).
Due to the abnormal experience perceive time under lockdowns, we will search through our memories trying to recall what we did in 2020 and perhaps 2021 as well. We may feel that time has passed too quickly without us grasping and processing it. Since stay-at-home orders mean that our daily routines are largely unchanged, we have lost the ability to differentiate between days. This blurring of days may lead us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our perception of time, since the longer the period of time feels, the longer it takes for our brain to process information (Arstila, 2012). In fact, researchers found that experiencing awe, relative to other mental states, caused people to perceive that they had more time available (Rudd et al., 2012).
Our memories are dependent upon how much neural power we dedicate to recording those moments since the more neural pathways are activated, the stronger the synaptic connections along the way become (Queensland Brain Institute, 2018). Some studies have reported diminished electrical activity in the brain when it was presented with a familiar image, which is known as repetition suppression (Sprague et al, 2010). The brain will speed up when engaging in repetition; it recognizes a pattern or routine and spends less time and energy inspecting it. The University of California, Irvine launched a study to better understand how the stay-at-home orders are impacting people’s memories (Steinberg, 2020). Under the stressors associated with the pandemic, participants identified as having Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) have found that they are forgetting things of the past and failing to recall certain memory landmarks since the lockdowns started in 2020.
For many of us, our own identity can be considered a formation of our past memories, which serve as our individual consciousness’ autobiography. You might remember the first time you traveled to a new country or learned how to play an instrument, because these memories serve as important temporal landmarks in building your story and identity (Shum, 1998). Without these temporal landmarks, our brains could mistake events in the past and allow our brains to make up events to fill in the gaps (Shaw at el., 2015). The brain uses these landmarks to anchor past events, and without them, you could begin to start mixing up timelines and erode your memories.
Dartmouth College Neuroscientist and time researcher Peter Tse suggests that evolution trained our brain to notice novelty (Steven, 2010). According to Tse, “moving shadows in the jungle could mean dinner, or it could mean becoming dinner—either way, it pays to pay attention.” When our bodies sense a serious threat, the amygdala directs our brain’s resources to focus on the current situation and plays an important role forming memories that are associated with fear-inducing events. This ability was evolutionarily advantageous as it enabled humans to make quick decisions necessary for survival.
Within the next few years, we may look back and find it hard to remember what we did during these periods of isolation. This isn’t a ubiquitous phenomenon as memory researchers have stated that these months will eventually become a blur for those of us isolating at home (Love, 2020). We will lose a sense of what was real with our memories, and our brains may start to fill in the gaps with other bits of information. However, for those of us that lost a loved one to COVID, it will most certainly be a period that you won’t forget and that memory will stay with you forever.
A 2019 study of over 11,000 participants taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) “ found that men who reported higher-than-average social isolation and women who reported increasing social isolation both experienced above-average decline in memory function within two years of being surveyed” (Read, 2020). This study highlights how the social isolation resulting from lockdowns further lead to a decline in our memory functions during the time of COVD-19.
It is particularly important to consider the ways in which our interactions with technological devices and systems make it feel as if time passes quickly. According to research by the University of Limerick, individuals who spend more time using technology overestimate the passing of time, while those who use less are more accurate at estimating time (McLoughlin, 2012). When we are present in the current moment, we dedicate more brain power to record events, helping us establish memories.
During the lockdowns, we aren’t constructing memories in the normal healthy way each day, and we are losing large chunks of life as time flies by. While we turn to technology each day to try and make time feel like it is going by faster, we can further exacerbate the underlying issue of memory loss or the having our brains mix memories. This is because while technology use seems to make the day go faster, it still prevents us from constructing memories through real experiences.
All of our memories have been severely impacted, but differently and by different experiences. Traumatic experiences also serve as a detriment to our memories— particularly prolonged trauma. Complex-PTSD, for instance, can be brought on by long and frequent episodes of trauma. One of its symptomatic markers that differs from PTSD that is brought on by a singular incident(s) is its effect on cognition and memory. Difficulty with time perception, planning, judgment and decision-making, and memory recall and formation are all typical of this form of trauma response. It’s not just the blur of quarantining for the average person, but also the excessive emotional and physical trauma of working with COVID-19 patients for people working in hospitals.
According to Neuroscientist David Eagleman, “time is a construction of the brain, and the brain goes through a lot of trouble to edit and present this story to you of what’s going on out there and how fast or slowly it happens” (Healy, 2009). Figuring out how to increase the amount of information that your brain takes in through inducing novelty will help make sure the weekdays and the weekends are different enough not to merge into one. With the lockdowns, our ability to do this is limited, but not impossible. To start, reflecting on your day each evening can help us consolidate your memories and document them. It’s true that less happens that’s noteworthy these days, but it will still be important to have recollections of what happened during this period. Perhaps, attempt to go jogging in a new park or try learning a new subject online or doing new activites with your children such as painting. These unfamiliar actions will help bring your brain back to attention as the brain stretches time out during novel experiences.
The Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel once said, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.” These words hold much significance in our present crisis: our memories are far too few, and we don’t yet know the long term consequences of this pandemic on our minds.
David is a researcher that focuses primarily on the subjects of time perception and our psychological well-being. He is also a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum. He tweets @DVKirichenko.