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The pandemic really has made your memory worse

No, you’re not imagining things. Here are three reasons why the pandemic has been bad for your memory.

The pandemic really has made your memory worse
[Photo: Freddie Addery/Unsplash]

If you look back over the last few months, you may find that you have a hard time picking out specific things you did. What did you eat for dinner two nights ago? Was that one client meeting last week, or week before? What happened again on that last episode of Yellowjackets?

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If you’re struggling to remember, you’re not alone. The pandemic has been bad for your memory in several ways.

To understand why, it is useful to know a bit more about how memory works. You encounter a lot of information each day, and your brain does not store all of it away. Forming memories is energetically expensive, because it requires you to grow new connections among the neurons in your brain. So, your brain is starting out by estimating whether a particular piece of information is worth holding onto.

Even after you do learn some new information, your brain is trying to figure out how likely you’ll need that information in the future, which can then make it more accessible. So, information you use often is easier to retrieve than information you only need in specific situations. Information you have used recently is easier to retrieve than information you haven’t thought about in a long time.

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Finally, memories are retrieved based on the similarity they have to the situation you’re in right now. You want to be able to think about things that are related to what is happening right now.

The pandemic has messed with all three of these aspects of memory:

You’re worse at paying attention

A classic observation in research on memory is that the more deeply you think about something, the more likely you are to be able to remember it. But, the pandemic has made it hard for many people to concentrate. Anxiety about illness or your job tends to make it hard to sustain your attention to material you’re trying to learn. Part of the motivation behind the Great Resignation is that many people feel disconnected from their jobs, and so they may not be engaging as much with their work.

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In addition, the pandemic has led to a fair amount of self-medication with a rise in behaviors like binge drinking. Alcohol and marijuana can both impair the brain’s ability to form memories.

The net result of this disengagement and substance use is that less information is triggering the work that is required to turn those encounters into long-term memories. Days may feel like a blur when looking back on them, because very few specific events may have been stored at all.

You have lots of short-term encounters

The pandemic has also created a lot of short-term engagements. Binge-watching a television series may be enjoyable in the moment, but when you engage with something for only a brief period of time, your brain ultimately decides that you probably don’t need to have access to that information later. As a result, you may have trouble describing the plot of something you binge-watched even a few weeks later. You might also find that when a new season drops from a show you binged, you may not have clear memories of what happened on the seasons you watched.

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If you want to remember some of the things you’re doing a more clearly, spread out the time that you engage with them. If you watch one episode of a show per week rather than the entire series at once, you’ll actually remember the details better later.

Your situation doesn’t change much

Remembering information is easiest when there is some distinct factor that is associated only with that information. That is why you may have many memories of a trip to a country you visited only once. When you see pictures from that trip or even think back on it, you may be able to call up lots of detail.

The pandemic has had the opposite effect to a wonderful trip like that. Many people are spending a lot of hours in their own homes. Working from home means that almost every event from every day is associated with the same space. On top of that, many meetings have involved tools like Zoom or Teams. That means that there are no distinctive spaces associated with particular meetings, as there would be if you were engaging with people in different physical locations.

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When you do encounter people, they’re often wearing masks, so you can’t see all of their facial features. As an example: This morning, I had an appointment with a primary care physician that I recently started seeing. She had no recollection of seeing me before. She apologized, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. A combination of rapid office visits combined with seeing lots of masked patients means that she has almost no distinctive information she can use to keep straight who she has seen over the past several months.

If your workplace allows you to work from home after the pandemic subsides, it is probably still worth finding ways to get out of the house or working from some other locations periodically to ensure you have other situations that you can associate with some of the work you’re doing. That might help to alleviate that feeling that you’re still stuck in March of 2020.

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