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Is Everything a Blur? Remembering a Year of Covid

Why do your memories of the last year blur together?

One year. As we approach a full year of addressing the Covid pandemic, what can you remember? Are your memories clear and complete? Or is everything a blur with your days blending together?

For many of us, I suspect our memories of this last year have blurred together. The days seem the same. Keeping straight what day it even is has become difficult. Do you recall which Zoom meetings covered which topics and who was there? Do any meals stand out? Can you remember the movies you’ve watched?

Of course, there probably have been some big events for all of us. Some things stand out. Maybe the election. Maybe the time when things closed. Maybe the loss of a loved one. I can certainly recall when I learned my mother had died (Covid caused isolation contributed to her decline).

But tracking from day to day and remembering the basic events of our lives may feel difficult this year.

Why are we having problems remembering the last year? Because everything is the same. If you are trying to work from home during the pandemic, this exacerbates the problem. Consider the basic pieces of an event that you might remember. There’s a location, the place where something happened. There are the people involved. There are the objects you interact with. Your emotional responses and thoughts are also a critical portion of an event. And there are the activities, the things you do.

For an event to be memorable, having unique components helps. Did it happen in an interesting place? Were there different people involved? Were there interesting and notable objects around? Was your emotional response different or extreme? Did you participate in new or unusual activities?

Think back on some of the events you do remember from the year of Covid. My memorable events are the unusual ones. When my university moved all classes online. A set of training sessions on teaching via Zoom. The election. My mother dying. You probably have some events that you can recall too. Many of these were the new, unusual, and distinctive events. They may have involved many strong emotions too.

But the everyday events? We’ve lost the ability to have distinctive events. Almost everything that happens occurs inside my house. I see a very limited number of people. A surprising amount of my life happens on my computer, much more than before the pandemic.

My meetings used to occur in different buildings, rooms, locations. Maybe even different cities, after a plane ride. But this year, when I have a meeting? On the computer.

We used to go out to the movies. Often to a small local place. We would have dinner and make a full date out of it. When we watch movies now, we watch on the computer.

I used to go to my office. That meant I took a bike ride, I went into a different physical location, and I saw people in the hallway. Now? Maybe I have a Zoom meeting. When I go to work, I turn on my computer.

When we would visit friends, we would leave the house. Maybe meet someplace. Or go to someone’s house, taking a bottle of wine and sharing a meal. We would engage in an activity and then stop for a beer at a local brewer's pub. But during the year of Covid? We schedule Zoom happy hours with our friends. We see our friends on a computer.

We still visit our favorite local restaurants. But now it is only to pick up and take out dinner. When we go out to eat, we are just eating at home. But hey, at least it isn’t on a computer. I will have dinner with the students in my research lab. I will probably have a take-out sent to each of them. And we will have a Zoom call. Our lab dinner will happen on a computer.

Going to a conference used to be a major event. I would fly, stay in a hotel, have meals with colleagues, attend interesting sessions, and meet new people. I’ve gone to conferences in the year of Covid. Virtual conferences, with online presentations on a computer.

I used to teach in classrooms. My students and I would be physically present. I could see the heads nod. I could judge looks of confusion. But now we see blocks of faces (or black boxes) on a computer.

My whole life has turned virtual. My work, recreation, and interactions with friends are through my computer.

If your life has been similar, then the problem with remembering can be stated simply. There are no distinctive events to remember. Everything blurs together because the features of the events are so similar. The physical space is the same. The nature of interactions is the same. We end up with general memories of these types of events. But remembering individual events is hard because the details overlap.

At some point, the pandemic will end. We will have distinctive events again. We will go to different places. We will see different people in real life, not through a computer screen. When this happens, the Covid year will become a transition period in our memories. Norman Brown and his colleagues have written about these transition periods. We have time periods when there is a change in the basic aspect of events. Those basic aspects are the places, people, objects, and activities of our lives. Transitions reflect moves, new jobs, and new friends. We remember things as before and after these transitions.

Covid will be a cultural transition. We will all share this transition. We will remember something as before Covid. We’ll remember other things as after Covid. But the events of the Covid year may remain a blur. A blur of every day, with moments of high clarity.

References

Brown, N. R. (2016). Transition theory: A minimalist perspective on the organization of autobiographical memory. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(2), 128-134.

Brown, N. R., Schweickart, O., & Svob, C. (2016). The effect of collective transitions on the organization and contents of autobiographical memory: A transition theory perspective. American Journal of Psychology, 129(3), 259-282.

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