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10 December 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 6:25am

How will we remember 2020?

The year of lockdowns and remote working may seem like a blur – but one cognitive psychologist explains why remembering the pandemic may not be all bad.

By Sarah Manavis

On Wednesday 15 April, I woke up at 7am, scrolled through my phone and took my dog for a walk. I worked at my desk, ate lunch, went for a run and did more work. I cooked something for dinner; I can’t remember what.

At least, this is what I think I did. I can’t remember anything, really, about 15 April. And not just 15 April, but almost any day from the past nine months. Like millions of others all over the world, I am suffering from a pandemic-induced malady: successive, monotonous lockdowns blending all the days into one.

This has been an extraordinary year, even before you factor in the pandemic. The Australian wildfires, the Black Lives Matter protests, Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and election defeat, the explosion in Beirut – these momentous events, alongside countless others less discussed by Western media, created a historic calendar that contrasted starkly with the dullness of our dormant personal lives.

It’s hard to imagine forgetting these world events when we reflect on 2020 in years to come. But without the rhythm of normal life – school holidays, annual festivals, religious gatherings – they may be all we can recall when we look back. How will we remember our own lives in such an outwardly dramatic year that was often privately experienced as uniquely mundane?

Robert Logie is professor of human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, whose research focuses on human memory and how it changes over the course of a lifetime. When I asked him about lockdown amnesia, he told me that this blending effect is the result of how our brains build memories and how we learn to recall the kinds of events that happen repeatedly throughout our lives.

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“Over our lifetimes, we accumulate knowledge of different settings that we encounter, from what typically happens in a restaurant, to a typical working day, to what we do on holiday,” Logie explained.

“Our brains are pretty efficient, in that each experience is understood and remembered on the basis of similar experiences we have had in the past. So, if there is nothing unique about a particular event, then the precise details will be forgotten rapidly. We then reconstruct what must have happened from our knowledge of previous experiences.”

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[see also: How Zoom calls revived my social anxiety]

According to Logie, this reconstruction occurs every time we try to remember any recurring event – such as a party, a lunch or a weekend break. We use the information we have gathered about these events in the past to create a skeletal outline of what usually happens, upon which we then flesh out a more detailed memory.

“Think of the last time you went to a restaurant,” he said. “You could tell me that you entered the restaurant, sat at a table, chose the food, maybe had a conversation with a friend, paid the bill and left. But you could tell me all of that without remembering anything about a specific visit – you would be relying on your accumulated knowledge of what happens when you visit restaurants. You might have more difficulty recalling exactly what you ate or how much you paid, which were unique to that event, particularly if the last visit was several weeks or months ago, and you have experienced lots of restaurants in your life.”

Logie explained that a similar process occurs when most of our days are spent at home: we build up a “generic memory” of the structure of a typical day during the pandemic. As we stockpile more of these memories we gradually lose our ability to distinguish one day from another. This merging of daily memories can affect everyone, but can be more severe for those suffering from the mental health impacts of the pandemic. The result is looking back at recent months and being unable to parse the details of what happened.

We do have small aids at our disposal to help us remember the days that we struggle to recall: social media posts, photos, old WhatsApp messages that might trigger a memory. Diary-keeping has been on the rise in lockdown, in many cases as a direct attempt to combat this blending phenomenon – or rather, to compensate for it: to preserve what our minds won’t. When I look back on my own social media archive for 15 April, I discover I didn’t go for a run; I was nursing a strained hip flexor. Apparently I baked salmon for dinner and watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The benefits of these social media prompts can be limited, though: they don’t always allow us to recover an actual memory. Instead, they may merely inform us of facts that we’ve forgotten and will never be able to recall. “Our memory works pretty well most of the time, but it can play tricks on us,” Logie observed. “Because much of what we remember is reconstructed from what we think must have happened, we can become convinced of something that never occurred.”

Even if most of the year seems like a blur, there may be positives to how we will remember 2020. The more we do, the less we recall the specifics, according to Logie, and with so little happening in many of our lives this year, certain incidents may stick out more sharply in our memories.

[see also: Journal of a plague year]

“If anything, people will remember key events in their lives from 2020 more vividly compared to other years,” Logie suggested. With the Pfizer vaccine rollout now under way, there is cause for cautious optimism that the worst effects of the pandemic may be confined primarily to just one year. We could be back to leading eventful, memorable lives by early spring. You may even be reading this having already been vaccinated.

While our personal memories of 2020 may be difficult to retrieve, with many of them destined to be catalogued as homogeneous monotony in our minds, what will be remembered are those invaluable, rare windows when we did get to do something – anything – with the people in our lives. 

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special