The Pandemic Is Messing With Your Memories

Image: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Without realizing it, human beings misperceive, misremember, and make up memories. The reasons, which all existed in the “before times,” are only made worse by the many stresses of Covid-19 and the politicization, conspiracy theories, and fake news the pandemic has generated. One might falsely recall, for example, that Covid-19 is only dangerous for old people and that a good stiff drink will help keep it at bay. Of course, none of those things is true, but for some, they may be ingrained memories.

These mental flubs, which can contribute to ideological polarization among friends and family, also explain how people offer up such rich detail in congressional or court testimony about an event that occurred weeks, months, or even years ago or how your favorite older relative vividly recalls childhood events. All such distant memories offer only the gist of what really happened at best, and at worst, they’re downright wrong.

“We don’t get any memory 100% right,” says Marianne Reddan, PhD, a researcher in psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University. “That’s actually a feature, not a bug.”

When a memory is recalled, it’s a bit like opening a computer file for editing. While neurons storing a particular memory are firing, the memory can be reinforced and solidified—or reimagined into something that doesn’t reflect reality. “This is a beautiful thing,” Reddan tells Elemental. “If you learned dogs were dangerous because one bit you as a kid, you can, through this process of memory reconsolidation, ‘unlearn’ your fear of dogs and begin to develop happy relationships with adorable pups.”

Memory is not designed to record every detail forever, Reddan says. “Its purpose is to help you predict (and survive) the future.” But memory’s pliability opens it up to a host of potential errors, with consequences ranging from benign to tragic, from innocent lies to dangerously inaccurate beliefs about Covid-19 or other hot-button issues.

Here’s why recollections tend to go wrong, each of them often working in concert with others.

1. Encoding errors and misremembering

Memory starts with the encoding of observations or experiences, which means storing in our minds the perception of sights, sounds, smells, and other inputs. But everyone brings different experiences, expectations, and skills to that instant of perception explains Julian Matthews, a cognitive scientist at Monash University in Australia. How much we pay attention to an event, which aspects of it we pay attention to, and even simple differences like viewing angle affect what we actually encode. One person sees a room full of people wearing face masks, for example, while another person might focus on the handful who are maskless.

Sometimes we just don’t remember events correctly, whether they occurred days or years ago. No one is immune, and studies show misremembering occurs in adults of all ages, says Nancy Dennis, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State.

Imagine, Dennis suggests, having several meetings in a day and misremembering who said what. Or believing you told your significant other you’d stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but in fact, you never mentioned it. Or thinking you’d met someone before when perhaps they just looked familiar.

“These are false memories,” she says. They’re all examples of simply remembering things wrong, and they are not the same as forgetting. “I may forget which of my colleagues had a specific great idea in the meeting we just had,” Dennis says. “But a false memory is when I think John had the idea when, in fact, Mary is the one who said it.”

2. Negative emotions and the power of suggestion can distort memories

In a classic 1974 study, researchers showed people film clips of auto accidents and asked them to estimate the speeds of each car. People who were asked “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” estimated the speeds to be higher than people who were asked the same question with the word “hit” instead of “smashed.” The lead researcher on that study was Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, now a professor of psychological science and law at the University of California, Irvine.

Loftus is a pioneer in the study of false memories. In another early eye-opening study, she showed how easy it is to implant false childhood memories. After talking with relatives about the childhoods of 24 adults, her team prepared four one-paragraph stories for those 24 adults, who became study subjects. One of the stories was false, describing a plausible shopping trip in which the person, back when they were five years old, had been lost. After a series of follow-up interviews, six of the 24 adults (25%) claimed to remember the fictitious, traumatic childhood event.

Loftus and other scientists have since shown how a memory can be distorted by post-event suggestions or misinformation either through a conversation with someone who perceived or interpreted an event differently or during an interrogation, when misinformation can be implanted as a memory in an accused person or a witness.

In extreme cases, suspects can be questioned in ways that lead them to make false confessions. The Innocence Project has logged 365 cases where DNA helped free innocent people from jail, including 20 death-penalty cases. In about 25% of the cases, the people had admitted guilt or otherwise confessed to crimes they did not commit.

No one is immune to this power of suggestion, Loftus says. Even people with superior autobiographical memories (hyperthymesia) who “remember just about everything they did every day of their adult life” can be easily manipulated in what they remember. “They’re just as susceptible,” Loftus says.

The stress of lost jobs, lost loved ones, or the isolation of the pandemic may only heighten the tendency to succumb to the power of suggestion. “Life stress can hurt memory and make people more susceptible to distorted or false memories,” Loftus says.

Multiple studies have shown, in fact, that negative emotions — from stress to fear to depression — can leave people open to developing false memories. Persistent negative moods, including depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), “significantly increase false memories,” says Charles Brainerd, PhD, a researcher and professor of human cognition at Cornell University. “So continuously being in a dark mood” is not helpful for “remembering the details of your life.” Emotions fueled by the pandemic would certainly qualify, Brainerd says. “Things that substantially elevate people’s stress levels lead to poor encoding of events as we experience them, which in turn elevates false memories.”

3. Fake news makes the distortion worse

Applying the concept of memory distortion to current events, Loftus and colleagues presented six news reports to 3,140 eligible voters in Ireland a week before a 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion. Two of the stories were made up, telling of illegal or inflammatory behavior of campaigners on either side of the issue. In subsequent questioning, nearly half said they had memories of the events that, in fact, never occurred.

Even after being told some of the stories were fake, many of the people clung to their false memories, recalling details that were not even in the fake stories.

“This demonstrates the ease with which we can plant these entirely fabricated memories … even despite an explicit warning that they may have been shown fake news,” says Loftus’ colleague Gillian Murphy, PhD, a memory researcher at the University College Cork in Ireland and lead author of the study, detailed in August 2019 in the journal Psychological Science.

In a new unpublished study, which is currently under review, Murphy and colleagues presented real and fabricated news stories about the Covid-19 pandemic to 3,700 people. Those who considered themselves very knowledgeable about Covid-19 were more likely than others to develop memories for stories whether they were true or fake. “Surprisingly, we found that those who were more anxious about the pandemic were actually less likely to report false memories,” Murphy says.

In another not-yet-published paper from the same study, fake news sometimes caused small shifts in peoples’ intended behavior. “Reading a fake story about problems with a Covid-19 vaccine was associated with less willingness to get a vaccine in the future,” Murphy says by email.

4. Your beliefs inform your memories

People are more likely to develop false memories if a fake news story aligns with their views. In Murphy’s 2019 fake news study, people in favor of legalizing abortion were more likely to remember a falsehood about their opponents, and the same distortion was true for the other side.

She is working on another study, not yet published, assessing false memories for public events related to the feminist movement. Early findings show “those who oppose feminism were more likely to falsely remember a fabricated news event that portrayed feminism negatively,” and the opposite was true for those who favor feminism.

Murphy thinks the same thing could happen among people in any highly emotional environment or partisan election, including the 2020 U.S. presidential election or the Covid-19 pandemic. Voters are, in particular, “likely to ‘remember’ fake scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate,” she says. “In countries where Covid is particularly politicized, like the U.S., I would expect ideology to impact false memory susceptibility.”

Some people will even ignore facts that don’t fit their views to the point that they create a false memory of the facts being just the opposite, according to a December 2019 study in the journal Human Communication Research.

The researchers asked people about their views on controversial topics, then showed them accurate statistics on the topics, including the decline in the number of Mexican immigrants to the United States from 12.8 million in 2007 to 11.7 million in 2014. Without being asked to memorize the statistics, the participants were later asked to write down the facts. When the facts didn’t fit peoples’ views, they tended to get the numbers wrong in the opposite direction.

“We had instances where participants got the numbers exactly correct — 11.7 and 12.8 — but they would flip them around,” says Jason Coronel, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. “People can self-generate their own misinformation,” Coronel says. “It doesn’t all come from external sources.”

This “confirmation bias,” as it’s often called, helps create stark rifts between people on everything from politics to religion and, yes, pandemics. And we all do it, blocking out legitimate facts that contradict our views without even realizing it, according to a brain-imaging study earlier this year in the journal Nature Communications. The more confident a person is in their view, the more likely their neural processing will change to “decrease sensitivity to disconfirming information,” says study leader Max Rollwage, a doctoral student at University College London’s Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging.

5. Extrapolating from the gist

Brainerd, the Cornell researcher, says there are two types of memory according to theory: verbatim memories of the literal details (you had a three-cheese pizza with sausage, pepperoni, and anchovies for lunch just before you got the call letting you know you got that exciting new job) and gist memories of the meaning of events (you had pizza the day you got that exciting new job).

Gist memories, the nonverbatim kind, “range from slightly imperfect to very imperfect, getting worse as time passes,” he says. “Over time, even verbatim memories fade, and we are left with the gist.” You might eventually remember the phone call from your new employer but have no recollection of that day’s lunch.

The brain, bombarded with information, organizes it all with the help of this gist, or what researchers call schematic memory. False memories can arise as we start to fill in the blanks.

“Everyone does this to some extent,” says Dennis, the Penn State psychologist. “Our memories do not work like a tape recorder,” she explains. “Memories have to be reconstructed when they are being retrieved.” We retain a general understanding of an event, along with some details, the thinking goes. Then we are prone to extrapolating details inaccurately, leading to an inability to distinguish between real and false memories.

That pizza might eventually become a calzone or barbecue wings, assuming you’ve ordered those a lot during your life, too. You’ve reinforced the important part of the memory and rethought the trivial.

Our future thinking could be colored by how we remember the pandemic

The malleability of memory can have advantages, points out Reddan, the Stanford researcher. Imagine, for a moment, your greatest fear. Snakes? Drowning? Covid? Ponder it. You’ve probably just changed how you think about that phobia, if only slightly, according to a 2018 study in the journal Neuron.

In the study, Reddan — while a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder—and a colleague used brain scans to show that imagining a threat can actually alter the way it is represented in the brain. Specifically, they found that when a person perceives an imagined threat while in a safe environment, the fear can subside. The implications extend beyond treating fear disorders, they speculate.

“Imagination can potentially distort memories and predictions of the future,” Reddan says. “If you have a memory that is no longer useful for you or is crippling you, you can use imagination to tap into it, change it, and reconsolidate it, updating the way you think about and experience something.”

We may not be able to unlearn our fear of Covid-19 — and certainly should not lose our respect for the virus — but imagination could be a useful tool to help us adapt to the stress of the pandemic, Reddan says, “to buffer the impacts of isolation.”

Meanwhile, how we remember, misremember, and imagine these pandemic times could color our future thinking considerably. Reddan imagines how we might recoil at strangers not wearing masks or be more disgusted than ever by coughs and sneezes. “I think these heightened feelings of disgust and fear will stay with us for a long time,” she says, “and color even how we look back on the past, at times pre-Covid.”

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