Commentary: Foggy memories of the pandemic? It’s your brain struggling to distinguish the days

Pandemic-related forgetfulness seems quite different in nature from the deficit observed in autobiographical memory. Nevertheless, distinctiveness may again be the culprit.

Most cognitive psychologists agree that memory is cue-based. To retrieve information from memory, we rely on specific cues that are associated with the target information. A cue can be verbal, such as a person’s name, or non-verbal, such as a location, image or emotion.

However, when a cue becomes associated with too many memory traces, it can no longer support the retrieval of specific information.

For example, if three events occurred in three separate rooms, each room should effectively cue a single event memory. However, if all three events occurred in the same room, competition occurs between the three event memories, and the room becomes a less efficient memory cue.

During the lockdowns, our daily lives became significantly less variable. As a result, the memories that we formed were all associated with a relatively limited set of environmental cues. Therefore, when we attempt to retrieve information from memory, we experience more interference between competing memory traces and worse overall memory.


Although experiencing lockdown-related memory problems may have been alarming, these problems were most likely a consequence of normal memory processes under abnormal circumstances.

The last few years have shown us that participating in unique and distinctive events is essential for memory, learning and overall mental well-being. However, for certain demographics, the lockdown did not significantly change daily life.

Many individuals living in institutions such as prisons or residential care homes may continue to experience limited variation in their daily lives beyond the pandemic. Given the empirical evidence and our subjective experiences over the last three years, it seems well worth considering whether we have a duty of care to introduce variation and distinctiveness into the daily lives of these individuals.

Molly MacMillan is a PhD student in Psychology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.