COVID lockdowns have made us forgetful. A psychologist explains why (and what you can do about it)
Lockdown has taken its toll on all of us in many different ways. But what has it done to our memories?
From “poor” to “excellent”, how do you rate your memory before you began social distancing? And, how do you rate your memory today? These are two of the questions PhD student Natan Feter and colleagues, from at Universidade Federal de Pelotas in Brazil, posed in their recent study examining the relationship between memory and social distancing measures, including staying home and avoiding contact with other people. It’s a question that’s been on many people's minds lately; how has lockdown affected our memories?
Feter’s team found that roughly one third of adults from southern Brazil reported worse memory since the beginning of social distancing restrictions. Given that Brazil has never had a national lockdown, and has taken a different approach to the pandemic than most other countries, can such results translate to the UK? To examine this question, Prof Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist based at the University of Westminster set up a study asking people to rate their memory related to everyday tasks.
In a recent interview with BBC Future, Loveday said that preliminary results show that 80 per cent of participants said that their memory had deteriorated in a least one way during the pandemic. This means that if you feel like you are reading the same sentence over and over again, or forgetting where things are around the flat more than you did before the pandemic, you’re certainly not alone.
But are you also getting less exercise during lockdown? It turns out this might also be related to your memory woes. In the Brazilian study, those who remained or became physically active during periods of social distancing were found to be far less likely to report that their memory had worsened, even when adjusted for various other factors, including age.
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But how physically active did people need to be to see the benefits? It turns out that each extra minute of exercise people did during periods of social distancing meant that they were a bit less likely to report memory declines. In Loveday’s UK study, the results were even found for those who were active in ways that we don’t regularly think of - people benefitted even just from moving more regularly between rooms or buildings.
This might mean that exercise, or more broadly, movement, rather than social distancing could be leading to perceptions in memory declines. And it’s not just the physical brain-boost of exercise either, moving to a different spot gives your brain a change of scenery as new inputs and environments help keep our brains fresh and our memories more distinct from one another.
Together, these findings are all in in line with the United Nations’ COVID policy brief which pointed out that “reduced physical activity” is a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia, particularly for older adults. So, each additional step, roll, or shuffle, particularly into a new environment, may help make you feel less like your memory is slipping away during socially distanced periods.
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Of note is that both of these studies measured subjective memory decline. This means that people said that they felt like their memory was worse. But feeling like your memory is worse isn’t the same as finding that your memory actually is worse. So, does this subjective feeling match reality? And do we know whether social distancing is actually making us descend into a foggy forgetfulness?
In January 2021, the University of Otago’s Weiwei Zhang and colleagues published a paper in which they asked 374 participants from the UK and US how many days in a row they had socially distanced before participating in a word memory task. They found a U-shaped relationship between social distancing and memory errors.
This means that, counterintuitively, memory errors initially slightly decreased as social distancing duration increased. So, for the first bit of lockdown their memory for words was better than before lockdown. It was only after an average of 30 days that memory errors began to steadily increase.
The team also found an almost perfect relationship between mood and memory. As mood dipped, so did memory. The kind of mood that was particularly potent in decreasing how well people remembered words was loneliness, which understandably increases as time goes on and has also been related specifically as a main factor that increases risk for dementia. This is yet another reason why reaching out to connect with each other during periods of social distancing can help to keep our brains, and memories, in good shape.
Finally, how good are we at remembering experiences that happened during the entire pandemic period, rather than just in a day-to-day setting or in wordlists? Norman Brown, a cognitive psychologist based at the University of Alberta, has proposed “Transition Theory” to help us understand the possible effects of the pandemic on autobiographical memory. The theory predicts that there is a COVID bump and a lockdown dip.
The COVID bump is an increase in the memories of events for the beginning of the pandemic. The lockdown dip is a decrease in the memories of events for the lockdown periods. This means that we are probably good at remembering things that were rapidly evolving and extremely emotional in the early weeks of the pandemic, while we are bad at remembering what happened during the lockdown periods where many of our days were tediously similar.
So, what’s the verdict? Does lockdown negatively affect our memories? Probably. Consider that the effect might be related to your negative mood, or that you haven’t returned to, or even started, your exercise routine. Also consider that even changing the room, or part of the room, in which you work from home in can help to mitigate your forgetful brain fog. Most importantly, it seems that being extra forgetful during lockdown is temporary rather than permanent. Phew.
Dr Julia Shaw is a research associate at University College London and the co-host of the Bad People podcast on BBC Sounds. She is an expert on criminal psychology, and the author of two international bestsellers, Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side and The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory.