Viral Memory?

Are you feeling stressed?

Chances are this time of unknowns with social/work/family change has you, and your friends and neighbors, on edge. With social distancing though you would need to be a fly on the wall in the homes of your friends to share the reality of this change. Because we are all in this together but actually may be alone, here is some insight into your mental response to the current situation.

Those who enjoy long stints online or gaming with little face-to-face contact may be better equipped for this new found isolation. It seems like many in our culture are comfortably connected on social media more than they are with face-to-face socialization. Author and researcher Sherry Turkle has asserted in her book Alone Together that a generation has learned to expect more from technology than one another.

This mix of stress and enhanced digital connection got me thinking about how our experience through Covid-19 isolation will influence our memory.

Knowledge of memory tells me one thing primarily — Do your best to cope during this time because you will remember it! Our brains encode new and unique experiences more than common ones. As my late grandma would say, “enjoy your life now as it really speeds up as you get older.” She was right by the way as grandmothers always are! This quickening of life is partly due to ‘the same old same old” experiences occurring as we age. College, marriage, birth, and career experiences mark our earlier years and their uniqueness stamp out and slow down time.

For many, this virus crisis will account for something memory researchers call flashbulb memory. First described by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick, these memories take on a characteristic like an old flashbulb camera. The light from the bulb illuminates the scene and a picture in time is created. Generations have experienced these indelible memories during the death of JFK, 9/11, and now perhaps a new generation with the corona virus.

My hope is that this period of time expires quite quickly. If it does we can be sure we are all under acute stress. These short periods of stress call upon the sympathetic nervous system to do its job; think fight or flight. During these times of stress our senses, including cognitive abilities like decision-making and memory processes, are enhanced leaving us with vivid memory. Spending two weeks in the house, with or without family members, can lead to enhanced memory for this time. The other option, which no one wants, is to deal with chronic stress. If the effects of Covid 19 are long-lasting then our body releases chemicals that negatively effect our memory, sleep, and other bodily functions.

Okay, so in the best case scenario I have two takes-aways:

1.) This unique time of our lives is so unusual that the days are likely to feel long and we are likely to remember this time period well.

2.) Our stress level, whether acute or chronic, will determine how our brains and bodies respond to this time period.

From a psychological perspective I suggest the following:

  • Avoid social comparison. As much as social media might save you during this time (think workout and educational videos) comparing your experience to others is dangerous. You do you!
  • Don’t believe everyone else is FINE. Chances are our view of others dealing with this situation (think social media family pictures of game-playing, working out, and writing poems) is curated so THEY ALL look happy and well.
  • Take care of yourself and your loved ones first. Try to focus on some basics: eat well, sleep, get outside, laugh, and lower your expectations. This last one is for me so I’ll say it another way. Be kind to yourself and others.
  • Think of how you can help others where you are. Make a phone or video call to someone more isolated than you, donate to a food bank or your local United Way.

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