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How Long Until We All Forget about COVID?: What psychology teaches us about collective memory

July 26, 2023

Covid June Commentary 4

Note: This posed originally appeared on Psychology Today.

The acute, emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has now come to an end, with the U.S. declaring the end of the COVID emergency on May 11, 2023 and the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the same on May 5. There are many practical implications to these turns of events, including the cost of access to COVID at-home tests and vaccinations moving forward. But aside from these practical considerations, another question remains: as the emergency comes to an end, what will we, as a collective, remember about the COVID pandemic? 

To start to answer this question, we have to understand a bit more about how memory itself works and how memories get passed down through generations. At the most basic level, your brain goes through three interrelated phases in the process of remembering something: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. When we encounter new information, our brains encode it via changes in the hippocampus. Most of this information is forgotten unless it is consolidated, which usually happens during sleep. The hippocampus ends up storing a kind of “index” for where these memories are so they can be retrieved again. Of course, when memories are summoned in different situations, they often change slightly, so it is best not to think of memories as in any way fixed or static. For long-term storage, memories are transported to another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Because disorders of memory, like Alzheimer’s dementia, usually begin in the hippocampus, it is sometimes easier at first for a person with these conditions to remember things from the distant past than to form new memories and remember more recent events.

Memories can get disrupted by a number of things. The most obvious disruption of memory is when memories get crowded out by new memories, which arise in the normal course of everyday life. But there are other factors, many of which are more specific to our experiences of the pandemic, that interfere with memory. Remember what we said earlier about memories being consolidated during sleep? It turns out that a lot of people had insomnia during the pandemic, perhaps in part due to being so inactive and sedentary day in and day out in the home. On a basic level, this may have interfered with our ability to consolidate memories about the pandemic in the first place. 

Two other major factors – stress and monotony – also affect memory and were in abundance during the pandemic. There  is good evidence that stress interferes with the process of building new memories, and between childcare woes, fears of getting infected, work disruptions, and general uncertainty about the situation, there was plenty of stress to go around during the pandemic. Research also shows  that uniformity of events may interfere with memory, as our autobiographical memories tend to be strongest when there are clear life transitions. During the pandemic, for many people everything was on hold and one day blurred into the next, week after week, month after month, making the process of holding onto specific events and memories much more difficult. 

What about our collective memory of the pandemic? Is there any way we can preserve that before it fades into the background?  Studies suggest that when parents pass memories down to children, those memories tend to last about 3 or 4 generations, but it is rare for memories to be passed down further than that. If we want to preserve memories of the pandemic for posterity indefinitely, we have a better chance if there are cultural artifacts, such as government records, monuments, museums, and works of art, that clearly reference and commemorate this period of history for generations. 

There are many reasons to try and preserve the memory of the years many of us spent living in lockdown, not least of which may be the desire to maintain lessons learned from this experience and how to handle it better the next time. There are things we can do to purposely preserve these memories, but we will need to work at it and not just assume that the memories will live on automatically. Human memory can be faulty, but cultural artifacts represent an important alternative to trying to rely on the vicissitudes of our collective memory.

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