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The COVID-19 pandemic blurred our memories

In a striking revelation, a survey has unearthed a new facet of how the COVID-19 lockdowns have tampered with our collective consciousness. Participants asked to remember the timing of significant events from 2021 showcased a high rate of errors. 

These surprising insights spring from a study conducted by Daria Pawlak and Arash Sahraie of the University of Aberdeen, UK. Their findings have been published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Remembering past events often poses a challenge, especially as time marches on. Yet, our perception of time is not an isolated phenomenon. It’s intertwined with our actions and emotions. 

The unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 lockdowns have had a profound effect on both. Social isolation dictated by the lockdowns changed our daily routines, often throwing our emotions into a whirlpool. Earlier research has already hinted at the pandemic’s influence in causing distortions in people’s perception of time.

The intriguing link between the pandemic and time perception, backed by clinical reports of patients struggling to create accurate timelines of their medical history, inspired Pawlak and Sahraie. They embarked on a journey to delve deeper into the pandemic’s effect on our sense of time.

In May 2022, Pawlak and Sahraie conducted an online survey. They presented 277 participants with questions about the year of several memorable recent events, such as the finalization of Brexit or Meghan Markle’s entry into the British royal family. The study also examined factors related to mental health, including levels of boredom, depression, and resilience.

Not surprisingly, participants found it harder to accurately recall events from the distant past. However, what emerged as an unexpected trend was their struggle to remember events from 2021 – a mere year before the survey. 

In fact, their recollection of 2021 was as flawed as their memories of events from three to four years prior. The year of the lockdown seemed to have blurred in their memories, leaving them grappling to pinpoint events accurately.

Another disturbing correlation discovered

Alongside these intriguing findings, Pawlak and Sahraie discovered a correlation between errors in timing and mental health. Participants who misremembered event timings were also more likely to have experienced heightened levels of depression, anxiety, and physical mental demands during the lockdowns. 

Interestingly, these individuals showcased lesser resilience. However, no significant correlation emerged between timeline accuracy and boredom. The results mirror previous observations made with prison inmates. This led the authors to propose a theory. 

Accurate recollection of event timing, they argue, requires “anchoring” life events. These could be occasions like birthday celebrations or vacations, events noticeably absent during the lockdown. This lack of distinctive markers, they suggest, might have contributed to the collective disorientation in remembering the timing of significant 2021 events.

“Our paper reports on altered timescapes during the pandemic. In a landscape, if features are not clearly discernible, it is harder to place objects/yourself in relation to other features,” said the researchers.

“Restrictions imposed during the pandemic have impoverished our timescape, affecting the perception of event timelines. We can recall that events happened, we just don’t remember when.”

More about the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has been a global health crisis of unprecedented scale since its emergence in late 2019.

Originating in Wuhan, China, the virus swiftly spread worldwide. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020. The virus primarily spreads through respiratory droplets, transmitted when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. It can also survive on surfaces for varying amounts of time, leading to indirect transmission.

COVID-19 symptoms range from mild to severe and can result in death, particularly in older individuals and those with underlying health conditions. Symptoms typically include fever, cough, loss of taste or smell, and difficulty breathing. However, a significant number of infected individuals remain asymptomatic, unknowingly contributing to the virus’s spread.

Globally, governments implemented varying degrees of public health measures to curb the virus’s spread. These included quarantines, travel restrictions, mask mandates, social distancing measures, and in many cases, complete lockdowns. These measures significantly impacted every aspect of life, leading to an international economic slowdown, disruptions in education, and an increase in mental health issues.

Scientific and medical communities worldwide worked at unprecedented speed to understand the virus and develop treatments and vaccines. By early 2021, multiple vaccines had received emergency use authorizations, and vaccination campaigns began worldwide. These vaccines have proven highly effective in preventing severe illness and death, though challenges remain, such as vaccine distribution equity and the emergence of new virus variants.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of global health security, exposed weaknesses in health systems worldwide, and underscored the need for international cooperation in tackling health crises. The virus continues to evolve, and dealing with its ongoing effects remains a global challenge.


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