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The failure of memory and unreality of time in lockdown

We'll always remember the highly charged events of the past few weeks, unlike the indistinct time that many people experienced before — and could face again.

Congress Street in downtown Boston, almost entirely empty in March.
Congress Street in downtown Boston, almost entirely empty in March.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

When lockdown started in the United Kingdom on March 23, Julia Shaw, a psychologist at University College London, and her partner, Paul, a barrister, started traveling — visiting Cuba, the Central African Republic, Colombia, and nearly a dozen other countries, all from their one-bedroom flat in London.

At least once a week, the couple would spend an evening learning all they could about a country. They would listen to podcasts or watch documentaries, wear the colors of the country’s flag, cook the food. They kept a spreadsheet. “We go all in; it takes the better part of a day to engage with all that material, it’s a lot of work. But that’s also why it works,” explained Shaw. “Because if you put in a lot of effort, a lot of time, that makes it more memorable.”

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Shaw knows what makes things memorable. She’s the author of “The Memory Illusion,” a book about the science of false memories. In her research, she has uncovered how remarkably easy it is for people to remember things about themselves that are utterly untrue. Memories are not absolute versions of events as they happened, but rather mental constructions, the result of a flexible editing process. Memory is slippery. And as the world heaves its way through the global pandemic, it’s been even slipperier.

“I think that people are going to struggle to accurately remember this time,” said Shaw. “I think they already are.”

Humans are much better at remembering novel things, or moments of change. For those of us fortunate enough not to be dealing with illness or death, nor working on the front lines, much of this past spring amounted to a lot of the same: a relentless monochromatic stream of being at home. News feeds documented the fact that we were living through a remarkable period, one shot through with stress, but even that had a deadening uniformity for people stuck at home. It was as if “Groundhog Day” had been written by Jean-Paul Sartre. Getting through it by establishing routines might have been important for mental health but “death for memories,” Shaw said. With too much of the same thing, we have no way to highlight specific moments.

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Then came the end of May. After the police killing of George Floyd, people left social isolation en masse, taking to the streets in rage, grief, exhaustion, and hope. We will quite likely have very clear memories of the highly charged events of the past few weeks; the visceral global reckoning will stand in contrast to the indistinct soup of days that came before — and could come again. If a resurgence of coronavirus infections forces more lockdowns, many people will probably be back at home again, making muddy memories.

Being largely confined to our homes can deprive our brains of material from which to create memories. Memories are made stronger when they involve more of our senses. “We don’t have as many unique smells, or the wind on your face,” Shaw said. “Our experiences aren’t immersive — it’s like watching television, it’s very flat.”

This phenomenon also impacts our perception of time: how it feels versus what the clock or the calendar says. People are generally bad at estimating how much time has passed; it’s a big drain on our cognitive resources, so we rely on shortcuts. “That’s why we hang onto memories, because we can organize time,” Shaw said. When you don’t do things that “traditionally stick out in our memories,” she added, “when we don’t have those sort of anchors, it flows, it melts, and we lose track of time.”

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This relationship works both ways: Memories are part of what makes our sense of time, but a sense of time also informs the strength of our memories. Without temporal markers — get-togethers with friends, the recitals at school, even a clear distinction between weekday and weekend — our memories dim. On top of that, a 2015 review of multiple studies found that people who are depressed generally perceive time to be moving slowly. During the pandemic lockdowns, surveys found that half of Americans had experienced a depressed mood in the previous week; nearly a third showed signs of clinical depression or anxiety.

To better understand how our memories will be affected by the lockdowns this spring (and ones that might follow later in the pandemic), I checked in with people who frequently experience intense isolation and the unreality of time. Rob Larter is a Marine geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey. For two-month stints each year, he is confined to a 100-meter research vessel in the icy seas off the Thwaite Glacier in western Antarctica, thousands of miles from anywhere. Hannah Chang and Kelly Thomas are both research assistants on a 13-month stint at McMurdo Station in Antarctica; they’ve been there since November 2019. During eight of those months, they see no planes in or out of the station; six of those months pass with no sun at all. Internet access at McMurdo is limited — the South Pole is connected for only a few hours a day, owing to the need to relay signals through several satellites.

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Time is strange for them. “Time is a paradox here,” Thomas wrote in an email. “To me it always feels like it’s flying by at light speed, yet it feels like we’ve been here forever.” To Larter, time is both precious — he has a lot of field research to accomplish in a compressed period — and easy to lose track of. “The day of the week becomes less important when you’re at sea. We work seven days a week,” he said. “Every day is pretty much the same.”

Thomas and Chang described an otherworldly quality to their time in isolation, an echo of the disjointedness that many people thrown from their regular life have been feeling. Chang said they both refer to life at home as “back on Earth,” adding: “It really feels like we’re on another planet right now.” This is changing how they remember things. “My memories are weird — they are crystal clear for the time I’ve been here, but hazy for the time before this,” wrote Thomas. “I sometimes feel like I can’t even imagine going back, or what I was like before this, it feels so alien sometimes.”

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Having routines is useful, but it also lends a quality of sameness that affects how Larter remembers his experiences. “There are moments of great clarity, but it is surprising how much detail you forget. I’m trying to write my reports now. . . . I’m kind of cursing myself because why didn’t I make an effort to do this earlier?” he said. “Fortunately, I took good notes.”

How can we get better at making unreal periods of time more real, at marking the days and remembering them? One way is to take good notes, especially about our emotional states. “We’re bad at remembering past emotions,” Shaw said. “We assume whatever we feel right now is how we have felt forever.” Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be both a means of processing those feelings and a way to remember them. (Writing them down in a public venue like social media is less useful, because that might reflect less of what we actually felt and more of what we wanted to present to other people.)

Another way is to work harder to make memories. That’s what Shaw and her partner were doing on those nights where they virtually explored other countries. These are what she calls temporal landmarks, short and intense emotional experiences that act as reference points in a barren landscape. Except that after months of lockdown, they realized they needed to make even those nights more memorable. “There is a routine to our country nights — the different countries are bleeding into each other,” she said, laughing. “What we’re doing to deal with that is we’re going to be doing some quizzes.”

The pandemic isn’t over, but right now, many of us are being spat back out into whatever the new normal looks like, and it’s not necessarily easy to remember what the first round of coronavirus normal looked like. That’s not good. Our memories of the beginning of the pandemic are important, not only as an artifact of a weird, weird time but also because keeping them urgent, keeping them real, is a reminder that it’s not over.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in England.