What do you think you’ll remember from the summer of 2020 – other than the weirdness?
This isn’t a trick question, but it could be. This summer may end up being a black hole for your memories – especially if you’re still working at home and keeping a low social profile in the real world.
This way of life taxes your brain, which affects your brain’s ability to store memories.
First some background about the brain. Its number one job is to keep you safe. In doing so, it’s always searching for possible dangers. When the brain notices patterns, it evaluates past patterns against the new stimuli.
The extreme uncertainty you and the rest of us face in so many aspects of our lives means a lack of patterns. Your brain gets fatigued trying to make sense of all these new conditions, one on top of another, especially since there’s nothing comparable in your memory and there’s no end in sight for many of them.
Even a partial list of all of these ongoing crises is exhausting: the health pandemic, the state of the school classrooms, the economic duress, the social unrest over racial inequities, the large number of hurricanes and fires, the upcoming election, shortages of products due to supply chain challenges, and on and on.
The brain also is attracted to novelties that excite and fascinate you. But most of us are not experiencing many new enjoyable and fresh events now, especially ones that you can share with friends, families and others who appreciate similar things.
This lack of patterns and novelties is a double whammy for your brain. And the upshot? Your brain has a hard time both adjusting to the way you’re living as well as finding enough worthwhile memories to collect and keep.
Since mid-March, these five situations have been particularly challenging for the human brain:
- The days of the week muddle together. It may feel like we got past Ground Hog Day, but our daily schedules are still more repetitive than they used to be. The sameness of these ongoing routines makes it hard to link what we’re doing to a specific time, which would help us remember. And as time blends together, we forget things both in the moment and longer-term.
- Many of us are still sticking close to home, which limits the variety of what we see, hear, smell and touch. While we depend on our eyes and ears for doing work, our nose and fingers are our workhorse senses for storing memories.
- We’re interacting with fewer people in person. Many of us are meeting with people virtually via video, which tires the brain in different ways. (Yes, this is the “Zoom Gloom” fatigue.) Our connections with individuals are important for both storing and retrieving memories. For example, when we’re trying to remember content from a workshop we attended, we often recall it by pulling up memories of who was with us in the classroom.
- We’re frequently worrying about the health, safety and economic wellbeing of ourselves, our family, friends and others. Many of us aren’t sleeping well. Many people aren’t getting enough to eat. The fear adds additional stress to our lives. The lack of sleep and food hinders the brain’s ability to function. The adverse effects can hurt our health in both the short and long-term.
- We’ve had to cancel, postpone or scale back celebrations, special events and trips. Graduation parties, birthdays, weddings have moved online or become small intimate gatherings. The summer special events featuring concerts, festivals, firework displays, etc., were cancelled this year. We may be able to buy toilet paper and paper towels now, but we’ve had a shortage of fun, novel and memorable experiences this summer. The brain thrives in collecting special moments for posterity, yet there’s little worth storing.
My apologies if this list is putting you in a bad mood – which is another side effect of what we’re experiencing during these uncertain times. (By the way, it’s not clear yet how our current moods and emotions are affecting our memory, although studies are underway.)
If you’ve read this far and you’re not interested in clearly remembering this period of your life, that’s fine. This may actually be a healthy strategy for you; it was for my grandmother.
(As an aside, my grandmother lived through the Depression as a single parent with a young daughter. She didn’t realize how much she had forgotten until she enrolled in college years later when she was a senior citizen. Her professor and fellow students in her American history class wanted her to provide color commentary about her experiences during the Depression. She declined, saying she couldn’t remember as she had blanked it all out. She still got a good grade.)
If you want to remember 2020, consider ways to kickstart your brain. For example, keeping a journal, annotating your calendar, and taking photos and videos can serve as helpful memory prompts for your brain.
And on the bright side, remember we’re all making history now. At some point, we’ll get to the other side.
How you’ll remember during this period depends on how much effort you want to apply now.
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