In Depth

Coronavirus blur: why we might not remember the lockdown

Research suggests many of us will quickly forget these months of social distancing

Research into the way humans form memories suggests that the majority of people living through the coronavirus lockdown may quickly forget the experience after the restrictions are lifted.

Or as science and health writer Shayla Love writes in an article for Vice, the “unnerving truth is that we may not remember much, because we never do”.

Why would we forget?

Those of us who come through the pandemic without suffering any major losses are likely to forget because our current situations are not “conducive to creating sharp, defined memories”, says Love. 

 “Despite having conscious awareness of each moment now, a lot of it will slip away,” she writes, adding: “Recognising that most of what’s happening will eventually be buried in the recesses of our brains might serve as a small comfort that at some point in the future, some of us will be free from this time period.”

This expected lack of recall is partly down to a lack of “novelty”.

Jennifer Talarico, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania-based Lafayette College, told Vice that while the pandemic and resulting lockdowns are “something that none of us have lived through before”, our days are currently “filled with sameness”.

As such, unless we suffer personal tragedies, our recollection of the period is likely to merge together many different memories and to become blurred, says Talarico. 

“There’s going to be a lot of blending together of these days, weeks, months,” she predicts.

When has this happened before?

In an article headlined “You Have No Idea What Happened” in The New Yorker, psychologist Maria Konnikova cites research by cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser, a former professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

In January 1986, on the day following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Neisser asked a group of his students what they had been doing and who they were with when the Nasa craft broke apart 73 seconds into its maiden flight, killing all seven crew members aboard.

He then asked about the events again two years later, and found that many of the students could not accurately recall these autobiographical details - that is, memories about themselves and their lives at the time of the explosion.

As Konnikova writes: “Their memories were vivid, clear - and wrong.” 

Explaining this phenomena, Vice writer Love notes that humans have the best recall when remembering “the most emotionally charged details” of events. So like the students in the Challenger experiment, those of us who experience the lockdown but are otherwise largely unaffected by the pandemic will probably forget the day-to-day of this period.

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So who will remember?

Given the link between powerful emotions and memory, “those on the front lines, like healthcare workers, will remember [the Covid-19 pandemic] differently”, says Love.

“They’ll witness the toll on human life first-hand, and emotions like grief, fear, and anxiety will heighten their memories,” she predicts. “They may end up haunted, the way people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are.”

However, past research suggests that while these people are likely to “remember the parts that are most emotional”, they will also forget the “peripheral details”.

2003 study of people who were living in New York during 9/11 found that while these local people had the most accurate memories of the attack, they had the worst autobiographical recall compared with college students from California and Hawaii. 

Love also describes how a Holocaust survivor asked at a trial of a Nazi how concentration camp inmates had washed their clothes was unable to remember that “peripheral detail”. 

Again, the link between extreme emotion and memory “explains how people can forget details you wouldn’t expect them to”, Love says.  

So NHS staff on the front line of the coronavirus crisis may end up with very strong memories of the period generally, but poor recollection of smaller, everyday details.

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