Science of forgetting: why we are already losing our memories from the covid-19 pandemic – Science

How much do you remember of the last three years? pandemic life? How much have you forgotten?

A lot has happened since the “time of the past”. Canceled graduations, toilet paper shortages, nightly applause for health professionals, new vaccines, waiting lists for the first dose and more.

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The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives, but it has only been truly transformative for a sizable subset of people: those who have lost someone to the coronavirus, health care workers, the immunocompromised, or those who have developed long-term Covid.

For everyone else, many details are likely to fade over time due to the idiosyncrasies and limitations of how much we brains can save.

“Our memory is designed not to be like a computer,” said William Hirst, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York. “Goes off”.

Because we might start to forget the pandemic

Forgetting is closely related to memory.

“A basic assumption we can make is that everyone forgets everything all the time,” said Norman Brown, a professor of cognitive psychology who researches autobiographical memory at the University of Alberta. “The default is to forget.”

To understand why we might forget parts of a pandemic life, it’s worth understanding how we hold on to memories in the first place. Your brain has at least three interrelated phases of memory: encoding, consolidating, and retrieving information.

When we encounter new information, the brain encodes it with changes in neurons in the hippocampus, an important memory center, as well as other areas, such as the amygdala for emotional memories. These neurons incorporate a physical memory trace known as an epigram.

Much of this information is lost unless it is saved during memory consolidation, which usually happens during memory consolidation. sleep, making the memories more stable and lasting. The hippocampus essentially “recreates” the memory, which is also redistributed to cortical neurons for long-term storage. One theory is that the hippocampus stores an index of where these cortical memory neurons are available for retrieval – like a Google search.

Finally, during memory retrieval, memory monitoring neurons in the hippocampus and cortex are reactivated.

But memories are not stable and permanent. Memory is subject to change every time we access and consolidate it.

What we remember tends to be subtle, emotionally charged, and deemed worthy of processing and thinking about in our minds after the event. Our memories focus on the stories of our lives and what has affected us most personally.

Against this nervous backdrop, the pandemic would seem unforgettable: a terrifying historical event, the likes of which most people have never seen.

Daniel Teixeira/Estadão

The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives, but it has only been truly transformative for a sizable subset of people: those who have lost someone to the coronavirus, health care workers, the immunocompromised, or those who have developed long-term Covid. Photo: Daniel Teixeira/Estadão

Information overload and monotony affect memory

But so much happened that it was hard for our brains to encode the information overload we had to overcome: masks, social distancing, more cases, more deaths, new waves and new variants like Omicron and Delta – and who still remembers them all the subvariants ;

“It’s a very fundamental phenomenon of memory,” said Suparna Rajaram, a psychology professor who researches the social transmission of memory at Stony Brook University. “Even with emotional events and life-threatening events, the more you have, the harder it is to keep.”

Even Suparna Rajaram, who conducts memory research on the pandemic, said she and her colleagues struggle to remember some of the events they ask participants about.

New memories, which simply happen as we live more lives, interfere with memories of earlier events. New events are more important and easier to remember because we are more likely to talk about them, remember them again and again, and re-embed them. THE stresssomething that the pandemic has created in abundance, also hinders the creation of new memories.

In addition to information overload, the pandemic has been boring for people stuck at home. “It was pretty much the same thing over and over again,” said Dorthe Berntsen, a professor of psychology who specializes in autobiographical memory at Aarhus University.

When facts are uniform, they are harder to remember. “Memory brings everything together almost as one event,” he said. “So I think we’ll have vague memories of those particular years.”

Who wants to remember a pandemic?

Here’s another reason we forget: As a society, many people don’t want to hold onto the memories of the pandemic.

People tend to see the future more positively than the past, said Suparna Rajaram. This future-oriented positivity bias occurs because the future can be imagined in many ways compared to the past, which is fixed.

Emotionally evocative and dramatic events are more likely to be remembered best, but even these memories fade and become distorted. One week after the terrorist attacks on September 11thHirst and a consortium of researchers asked more than 3,000 people across the United States to report their experiences and feelings about the event.

When the researchers repeated the questions just a year later, about 40% of the people had not accurately preserved their memories. But they remained “extremely sure they were absolutely right,” said Hirst, who studies the social aspects of memory.

The least reliable feature of our memory is remembering how we felt at the time.

“If you ask people to remember how they felt in the early days after 9/11, the answer is more like how they feel now than how they really felt in the early days,” Hirst said.

Remembering the past is something we do in the present, with all our feelings, knowledge and behaviors today. This reality can have direct consequences for how we look back and face the future.

Will covid-19 be part of your life story?

Covid has affected everyone, but the imprint it will leave on our lives – and therefore on our memories – can vary dramatically.

More than 2,000 Americans are still dying every week since the third anniversary of the pandemic lockdown. At least 1.1 million people died in the United States and 6.9 million worldwide. Loved ones left behind are less likely to forget the pandemic.

Among frontline health care workers, many are still suffering from burnout or continue to deal with the trauma of bearing the brunt of the pandemic. At least 65 million people worldwide suffer from the prolonged and often debilitating effects of long-term Covid.

“I would say that for a lot of people, the pandemic will be remembered as a kind of gray in-between,” Brown said. “And for other people, it will be a transformative type of event or period. These people will have a different memory.”

Our autobiographical memory is structured by life transitions, and for many people, the transition to the pandemic was gradual – and the transition back to a seeming normalcy even more gradual.

“To really make an autobiographical memoir, the story has to take your life and turn it upside down,” Brown said.

The risk of collectively forgetting another pandemic

How society decides to look back on the pandemic is likely to affect whether and how it lives on in our society’s collective memory and what future generations learn from our experiences.

Families pass on their knowledge and family history to their children, so these communicative memories only last two or three generations: we may know something about our grandmothers or even our great-grandmothers, but almost nothing further down our genealogy. tree.

Without cultural artifacts – books, films, statues, museums – the same can happen to memories of the pandemic, consigned to the entropic dustbin of history. So far, there are no official permanent memorials to Covid.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 infected a third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people – more than the military casualties of World War I and World War II combined. But it seemed to be fading fast from collective memory – and only revived with the arrival of our modern pandemic.

“Will the covid-19 pandemic have the same fate and memory?” asks Suparna Rajaram. “I think if the past tells anything about the future, the answer is yes.”

But our future history is yet to be decided. Governments and institutions have the necessary intergenerational structures and resources to keep collective memories alive.

“And the question is, do we feel a moral imperative not to let history end with us?” Hirst said. / TRANSLATION OF RENATO PRELORENZO

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