It was after returning from the corner shop without oat milk for the third time, and shortly after having to furiously Google the name of an actress I'd usually be able to recall in an instant, that I began to wonder if lockdown was affecting my memory. That dull itch-ache in my head, almost akin to the feeling you get when you lose a sneeze, has become an ever-looming feeling.
I've also noticed that lately, I'll be halfway through a sentence when a word – "You know, the one that's not a fork or a knife! What do we call that?" – escapes me. I'll walk into rooms, look around then go "Nope, no idea" before turning heel. And according to the experts, I'm not the only one experiencing this type of major lockdown brain fog at the moment.
Step forward Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, who says that although frustrating, this is a normal thing to be going through – and there are a few different reasons why. "Neuropsychologist David Eagelman who studies time perception, calls time 'a rubbery thing' that changes based upon where we are and our mental engagement with our experience," she explains.
Burke continues on to say the more engaged we are with what we’re doing, the longer time seems to last (trippy, I know) and the more our brains will actually register what's going on. "Essentially, time slows down if we pay attention, because we tend to notice more and, of course, the more we notice things, the more we tend to remember them," she says. "But right now, with most of us spending almost all of our time homebound, we're not being as stimulated by new sights, or experiences."
In addition to this, there's all the extra screen time we're racking up which intercepts our ability to memorise as much. "In the 1900s, during one of their many experiments on memory consolidation, Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker asked their participants to learn a list of meaningless syllables," Burke begins. "Following a short study period, half the group was immediately given a second list to learn while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.
"When tested an hour and a half later, the groups showed strikingly different patterns of recall: the participants given the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group who had been given no time to recharge their mental batteries."
What do these findings show? Well, Burke says they clearly suggest our memory for new information is especially fragile straight after it has been encoded, making it more susceptible to disruption from new information. "Other studies done over the past century underline these findings too. In our modern day and age, we've never had so many distractions to potentially disturb our memory function," she notes.
"Imagine you’re a student taking a study break or you're taking a break in the midst of trying to assimilate new information," Burke says. "What are you most likely to do first? Probably pick up your smartphone, through which you’ll be bombarded with news alerts, messages from friends, Tinder matches, eBay wins. Our brains never really get a break and that has a huge impact on our ability to memorise."
All of this (minus being able to chat in-person with friends, visit new places, or exercise as freely as we once could, plus being hooked on a constant cycle of never-ending bad news) is having an impact. "Our brains can get overloaded and 'overheat' in the way a computer that we've been using for a long time without powering down can," says Burke.
"If we're taking in a huge amount of new data - as many of us are these days, what with being constantly connected to a drip feed of disturbing news – it can lead to us becoming slower at accessing things we previously would have been able to remember quickly." Such as a person's name or the reason why you've gone into a particular room.
Luckily, there are things we can do to reboot a tired brain's hard drive, Burke notes. "Simply pay more attention, even to the familiar. For instance, I've been making more of an effort to look up on my daily walks, so even though I'm just walking through my very familiar neighbourhood, I'm taking in new sights and as a result I'm memorising my walks more (not to mention getting more enjoyment from them."
There are also plenty of ways we can reduce our screen time too – by making an effort to find new hobbies, swapping Zoom calls to phone chats and banning devices from certain rooms – something I'm certainly making an effort to do.
Fingers crossed it'll start making a difference soon... so I can stop drinking black coffees and start remembering Catherine Zeta-Jones' name.
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