The Science of Forgetting: Why We're Already Losing Our Pandemic Memories

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Sep 18, 2023

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The Science of Forgetting: Why We're Already Losing Our Pandemic Memories

The human brain is a complex and fascinating organ, capable of incredible feats of memory and cognition. However, when it comes to remembering information, the default mode of operation is forgetting. This is according to Norman Brown, a cognitive psychology professor at the University of Alberta, who has been researching autobiographical memory. He asserts that we forget everything all the time, and it requires conscious effort to retain information.

Memory, as it turns out, is not a single process but rather a series of interrelated phases. The three key phases of memory are encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. When we encounter new information, our brains encode it by making changes in neurons in the hippocampus, an important memory center. These changes create a physical memory trace known as an engram. However, much of this information is lost unless it is consolidated during sleep, which makes the memories more stable and long-term.

One theory suggests that the hippocampus acts as an index, storing the location of cortical memory neurons for retrieval, similar to how Google search works. During memory retrieval, the memory trace neurons in the hippocampus and cortex are reactivated, allowing us to recall past events and experiences. However, even with this complex system in place, our memories are not infallible.

Our memories are often centered around our life stories and the events that personally affected us the most. However, the more memories we accumulate, the harder it becomes to capture and retain all of them. This is because new memories, simply by living our lives, interfere with the memories of older events. Additionally, when events are uniform or similar, they become harder to recall as the memory tends to group them together as one event.

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people may not want to hold onto these memories. As a society, we tend to view the future more positively than the past. This future-oriented positivity bias occurs because we can imagine the future in many different ways, whereas the past is fixed. When we remember the past, we do so in the present, influenced by our current emotions, knowledge, and attitudes. This may have direct implications for how we look back on the pandemic and how we navigate the future.

In order for our memories to truly become a part of history, they need to be preserved and shared through cultural artifacts such as books, movies, statues, and museums. Without these artifacts, memories can easily fade away, consigned to the entropic dustbin of history. While parents pass down their knowledge and family history to their offspring, these communicative memories only last for a few generations.

So, what can we do to preserve our memories and ensure they aren't forgotten? Here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Journaling: Keeping a journal or diary can be an effective way to record our experiences and memories. By writing down our thoughts and emotions, we create a tangible record that can be revisited in the future. Make it a habit to jot down important events, feelings, and reflections regularly.
  • 2. Documenting through media: In today's digital age, we have the ability to capture and document moments through photos, videos, and audio recordings. Take advantage of these tools to create a visual or auditory archive of your experiences. Organize and back up these files to ensure they are accessible in the future.
  • 3. Sharing with others: Memories become more vivid and meaningful when shared with others. Engage in conversations with friends, family, and future generations about your experiences during significant events like the pandemic. By sharing your stories, you contribute to the collective memory of society.

In conclusion, the science of forgetting reminds us that memories are fragile and prone to fading over time. However, by actively engaging in practices that preserve and share our experiences, we can ensure that our memories leave a lasting impact. Whether it's through journaling, documenting through media, or sharing with others, the choices we make today can help shape the memories of tomorrow.

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