Greetings from the pandemic memory hole

The eternal sunshine of the pandemic mind: For those who have continued to keep their normal lives somewhat on hold, it seems to be getting worse as we begin a third lap around the half-empty mall of memory and experience. A study released in September 2021 of 150 female first-year psychology students at an Italian university found a significant decrease in both working memory and prospective memory during the coronavirus pandemic.

The condition of some people’s recent memories — smudged, shuffled — is not surprising to psychologists who study how memories are formed.

“Distinctiveness improves memory,” says Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychology professor and the author of “The Seven Sins of Memory.” But when every day feels the same — perhaps because of losing a job, or child care — we lose our ability to distinguish between events, impairing our ability to make memories. “We’re not segmenting those events, separating them from one another, making them distinct from one another,” he says. “So that really sets the stage for what we might think of as more muddled remembering.”

“I’ve definitely had a lot of trouble, ” says Mariam Aly, an assistant professor of psychology who studies memory at Columbia University. “You know, did this happen last week or two weeks ago? Did this thing really happen only three months ago? I thought it happened last year.”