If you’ve been more forgetful since lockdown began, you’re not alone. Since we stopped seeing friends and family and leaving the house as often, many people have said they’ve found it hard to pinpoint what day it is, remember whether they’ve bought milk, or replied to an important email.
Research has already begun to explore the prolonged impact of COVID-19 social restrictions on our mental health. One UK study found the rates of mental distress in the general population increased from 18.8% to 27.3% between the spring of 2018 and spring 2020. However, anecdotal evidence aside, less is known about the impact of quarantine on our memory.
So why might we be feeling more forgetful at the moment — and is there anything we can do to boost our memory?
Firstly, it’s important to note that there are several different types of memory. Forgetting to buy toilet paper, for example, is different from forgetting what you did yesterday or what you ate for lunch. But research on how memory works suggests several ways in which our current environment could be having an impact on our ability to recall things.
At the end of last year, researchers at the University of California Irvine announced they would be launching a study to examine if lockdowns have impacted our ability to remember. The team suggested our repetitive schedules under quarantine may have affected our ability to recall recent events because each day is hard to distinguish from the last.
Dr Michael Yassa, director of the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, told The Wall Street Journal, people use cues to form and recall memories, which are often triggered by new interactions and varied locations. Under lockdown, our monotonous lockdown routines make it more difficult to connect things to certain times.
Stress is also known to have a significant impact on our memory. It can be harder to focus, think clearly and learn new information when we are preoccupied with worry. We may also be less alert to information if we experience poor sleep, something lots of people have struggled with in the past year. Essentially, our short-term memory is affected because we are distracted instead of being fully attentive.
Even if we don’t feel too stressed, we may still be affected by a low level of background anxiety as a result of COVID-19. Living through a global pandemic, which is enough to affect our memory. Even the shift to home-working can be a strain, particularly if we’ve got into the habit of working late and checking our emails out-of-hours.
“We have all, at some point, found ourselves overwhelmed and consumed in work tasks and deadlines, only to find space when we stop and remember things we had forgotten to do,” says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant. “There are many reasons why this occurs, from the cognitive cost of task-switching, distraction and focus, to how stress impacts our short-term memory.”
WATCH: The Biggest Job Interview Mistakes
Stress changes both how we form and retrieve memories, as well as how our memory works.
“When we are stressed, we find it challenging to create short-term memories. It can also impact our ability to recall short term memories,” explains Chambers. “Chronic stress can lead to cognitive impairment, and this, in turn, affects our working memory.”
When anxiety is very high, it interferes with new learning and our ability to recall. Essentially, the shift to ‘fight or flight’ mode releases hormones like adrenaline, meaning we are scanning for potential threats and unable to focus on other things around us.
However, stress has a complicated relationship with memory. In small bursts, anxiety can sometimes be helpful. For example, when studying for an exam. “It is worth noting that stress can be positive for memory recall in the short-term, especially for emotional memories,” Chambers adds.
It’s also well-documented that isolation and a lack of social contact can affect the brain negatively, particularly in those already struggling with memory problems. A recent study in mice conducted by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona found that social isolation worsens the effects of Alzheimer's disease.
And of course, many of us are seeing fewer people than we usually would. When working from home, we miss out on the quick catch-ups with people in the communal kitchen over a coffee or lunch. Although we might be chatting over Zoom, online socialising simply doesn’t have the same impact.
“When we consider ways to improve our memory, it is worth considering that managing our stress, looking after our wellbeing and keeping organised all have the benefit of boosting our memory, alongside other positive benefits,” says Chambers. “Both insufficient sleep and a lack of movement have a similar negative impact on working memory, so ensure you try to address these by prioritising sleep and building movement into your schedule.”
It’s worth considering relaxation techniques to reduce your stress levels, such as breathing exercises or finding ways to “switch off” from work and life. By disconnecting from stimuli, Chambers explains, you give your mind a chance to disconnect.
“Getting out into nature has proven positive for our attention, and breaking our work up allows us to honour our ultradian rhythms, which helps us connect more deeply to tasks,” says Chambers. “There is one thing to remember; we are all forgetful sometimes, and unless it becomes problematic, being kind to yourself and not getting stressed about it will be conducive to a better working memory in the future.”