Many of us have found ourselves in an isolated routine during the pandemic – and it turns out, that’s not very good for your memories.
If, since lockdown, you have found it hard to remember to email someone, summon up the word you need, or yet again forgotten to buy the milk – you are not alone. I’ve lost count of the number of times recently that friends have bemoaned their worsening memories.
Data is not, of course, the plural of anecdote and it’s too early for research comparing our memory skills before and after the Covid-19 pandemic. But in a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society, half of relatives said that their loved ones’ memories had got worse after they began living more isolated lives.
Limits on socialising within care homes and in some cases a ban on any visitors for many months seems to have taken its toll.
At the University of California Irvine, research is beginning on how the lockdown has affected people’s memories. It’s been reported that even some of those amazing people who usually remember events like buying a cinema ticket 20 years earlier because they have highly superior autobiographical memory are finding they are forgetting things.
There are, of course, several different types of memory. Forgetting what you intended to buy is different from forgetting someone’s name or what you did last Wednesday. But research on how memory works points to several ways in which our newly constrained environment could be having an impact.
The most obvious factor is isolation. We know that a lack of social contact can affect the brain negatively and that the effect is most serious in those already experiencing memory difficulties. For those with Alzheimer’s Disease, levels of loneliness can even predict the course of disease.
Of course, not everyone has felt lonely during the pandemic, and the results of some studies have shown that levels of loneliness have plateaued over time.
But even if we don’t feel distressed at a reduction in human contact, many of us are still seeing fewer people than usual. We’re missing out on those water cooler conversations in the office or at parties where we might talk to dozens of people in one evening, exchanging tales of what we’ve been doing.
Repetition of stories helps us to consolidate our memories of what happened to us – so-called episodic memories. If we can’t socialise as much, perhaps it’s not surprising that those memories don’t feel as crystal clear as usual.
When we do get the chance to chat, we also have fewer stories to tell. As holidays get cancelled, weddings are postponed, concerts and sporting events go ahead without live audiences, we have less to talk about. And as for tales of woe at work, they’re mainly about the frustrations of technology letting us down.
It’s true that you might be compensating with more online socialising. But those conversations are not quite the same. You might be less likely to mention the inconsequential things that have happened. To make it worth preserving with delays or drop outs, your story needs to be worth telling. If your threshold for what counts as interesting enough to say has risen, then once again you miss out on underlining those memories.
But there is more to it than a lack of socialising. Many people mention feeling of a background anxiety to life now. Even if you appreciate how lucky you are, and how others have it worse, the sense that the world has become a more uncertain place can be hard to shake off.
At University College London, psychobiologist Daisy Fancourt and her team have been conducting research in the UK throughout the pandemic on how people have felt. Although levels of anxiety peaked when lockdown started and have gradually reduced, average levels have remained higher than in usual times, especially in people who are young, living alone, living with children, living on a low income or in urban areas.
Meanwhile, the Office of National Statistics in the UK has found that rates of depression have doubled. Both depression and anxiety are known to have an impact on memory. Worries tax our working memories, leaving us with less capacity available for remembering shopping lists or what we need to do for work.
This is all made more difficult by a lack of cues to aid our memories. If you go out to work then your journey, the change of scenery and breaks you take punctuate the day, giving you time points to anchor your memories. But when you work from home, every online meeting feels quite similar to every other online meeting because you tend to sit in exactly the same place in front of exactly the same screen. There is less to tag your memories too to help you distinguish them.
As Catherine Loveday, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster puts it: “Trying to remember what’s happened to you when there’s little distinction between the different days is like trying to play a piano when there are no black keys to help you find your way around.”
As well as the days merging into one, so do the things you do in those days. In an office you might walk past a room where you had a particular meeting, which reminds you that you needed to email someone about it. At home there are no cues to help you remember the different parts of your work. Every memory is tagged to sitting at your computer. At work you might remember exactly where you had a conversation – by the lifts or in the office kitchen – and that helps you not to forget it.
Then there’s a general fatigue, which also doesn’t help our memories. Zoom meetings are tiring, some work is much harder from home and holidays are getting cancelled. A lack of routine and anxiety about the pandemic can disturb our sleep. Put all that together – basically we’re consistently tired.
So with the combination of fatigue, anxiety, a lack of cues, and fewer social interactions, it’s no wonder that some of us feel our memories are letting us down.
And Loveday believes there is an additional factor involved – one that we might not even have noticed. It concerns the impact on our brains and on our memories in particular, of spending time in different geographical locations.
Finding our way back home has always been important to our survival. As soon as we leave home, we start paying attention. Whether we are navigating our way through a forest or around a town, we make more use of the seahorse-shaped brain region known as the hippocampus. Remember those studies showing that black cab drivers in London who learn every back street? Those drivers end up with a larger hippocampus.
We need to engage the hippocampus in order to remember new information, but Veronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada, has found that if people’s lives become more confined and repetitive as they age, their use of the hippocampus decreases.
Likewise, she found that drivers who rely on satnav rather than finding their own way made fewer spatial memories, the kind of memories that particularly rely on the hippocampus.
If we’ve been at home most of the time for several months due to the pandemic, we’ve lost that extra stimulation that comes from finding our way around.
The good news is that there are things we can do about it. Going for a walk, especially along unfamiliar streets, will bring your brain back to attention. And even moving makes a difference. Do you have to sit at your desk for every meeting? If it’s a phone call could you walk along the street chatting instead.
Making sure the weekdays and the weekends are different enough not to merge into one can help with the distortions our new life can have on our perception of time.
Loveday advises adding more variety to our lives, which might involve some creative thinking to achieve. If you can’t go out, she suggests finding a completely new activity at home, and then telling someone about it afterwards to help you remember it better.
Deliberately reflecting on your day each evening can help you consolidate your memories. You could even write a diary. It’s true that less happens that’s noteworthy these days, but it could still be interesting to look back on one day. It can also help your memory right now.
And if you’re forgetting to do things, then making lists and setting alerts on your phone can make more difference than you might think. You can also harness your own imagination. If you want to remember to buy milk, bread and eggs, then before you go picture yourself visiting each of the necessary aisles in the actual shop you are going to. When you get there, this imaginary shopping trip will pop back into your mind and you’re more likely to remember everything you need.
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