The Pandemic May Be Affecting Your Memory

Research shows difficult events may lead to inaccurate memories.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

Research demonstrates our memories are not as accurate as we believe.

While most people think their memories represent the truth, the evidence demonstrates that our memories depend very much on the circumstances we are experiencing at the time and that they shift over time. A large body of research shows that emotions, especially those provoked by negative events, can lead to inaccurate or even completely false memories.

Depression, anxiety, and stress—three mental health problems linked to the COVID-19 pandemic—consistently lead to false memories, said Charles Brainerd, a Cornell University psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts in false memories. “Continuously being in a dark mood makes it difficult to remember the details of your life,” he said. “Things that substantially elevate people’s stress levels lead to poor encoding of events as we experience them, which in turn elevates false memories.”

Brainerd and his research partner, Cornell psychologist Valerie Reyna, have developed the fuzzy-trace theory of false memory, which says that there are two types of memory: verbatim and gist.

Verbatim memory is a vivid, literal record of specific details. Gist memories are fuzzy recollections of past events, which capture their meaning and have a much more powerful influence over longer periods of time. In other words, if you are remembering an event from a year ago, you are more likely to rely on the gist of what happened than remember specific details. False memories occur when your brain attempts to fill in the blanks of a gist memory.

“Fuzzy-trace theory predicts people who experience persistent negative moods are at elevated risk of forming false memories because the memories are distorted to fit a negative take on life,” Brainerd said. “Prolonged levels of high stress from continuing financial, educational, and social uncertainty are a major cause of persistent negative moods. Thanks to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire country has been experiencing such prolonged levels of high stress for many months. Worse, those uncertainties have been heightened by the lack of clear federal policies to contain the pandemic.”

There is another dynamic taking place this year that may also lead to false memories—the increasing incidence of misleading or false news stories.

A recent study by Irish researchers, which included more than 3,700 participants, examined how fabricated news stories about COVID-19 affected the accuracy of participants’ memories about the virus itself. People who were able to objectively assess knowledge about COVID-19 were less likely to create false memories and more likely to tell the difference between true and false stories.

On the other hand, participants who believed themselves to be very knowledgeable about COVID-19 were more likely to report a memory for any story, true or false. Those who reported high levels of “media engagement” or anxiety about COVID-19 were more likely to recall both true and false stories, but also demonstrated heightened sensitivity to the difference between true and false stories. Surprisingly, participants who felt more anxious about the pandemic were less likely to report false memories.

The researchers concluded that a person’s knowledge about COVID-19 and his or her tendency to think critically are important indicators as to whether or not they create false memories related to the pandemic.

The take-home message: Our memories are malleable and our circumstances have a surprisingly important effect on them. The experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic—including social distancing, isolation, and anxiety about the virus—are all elements affecting our memories during this time.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.