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Memory problems during the pandemic? It’s just your brain trying to distinguish one day from the next

A side-effect of pandemic response measures has been the impact on our mental health. But memory problems are a natural response to the environments created…



People reported memory loss during the pandemic. (Shutterstock)

Without a doubt, we are living through a historically significant period. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted the global economy, imposed extreme strain on health-care systems and precipitated a sudden and dramatic change in our daily lives.

Intuitively, it seems logical that the magnitude of disruption caused by the pandemic should generate many memorable moments of this time in our lives. Nevertheless, many people report anecdotally that their memory of life under lockdown is poor. And many of us experienced an increase in forgetfulness during the months of social isolation.

It’s not really clear what exactly causes these memory glitches, but well-established theories from cognitive psychology may be able to explain the phenomenon.

Sense of self

Autobiographical memory refers to our recollections of the events and general knowledge that constitute our sense of self. Interestingly, research into autobiographical memory shows that adults over 30 remember a disproportionately high number of events from late adolescence and early adulthood. This robust effect is known as the reminiscence bump.

Transition theory suggests that the effect occurs because early adulthood is a period of transition during which we experience new events, encounter new people and visit new places. The novelty of these experiences makes them stand out in memory.

In contrast, during periods of stability (e.g. working for many years in the same job), our activities tend to be less varied and less distinctive. As a result, daily events are more likely to be stored in memory as generic representations rather than as individual memories for specific events.

This theory is supported by the finding that major life transitions, such as immigration or major career changes, cause a similar spike in the number of memories we can retrieve from around that lifetime period.

Extreme stability

The COVID-19 lockdown forced changes in our behavioural patterns consistent with a transitional period. We abruptly stopped interacting with many of our acquaintances, going to work or school and participating in social activities. Transition theory predicts that we should have more specific event memories from around the time that the public health measures were first imposed.

However, unlike a typical life transition, during the lockdown, one set of regular activities was not replaced by another. Instead, our day-to-day activities became significantly less varied, and we participated in far fewer novel activities. Many of us transitioned from a period of relative stability to a period of extreme stability. Consequently, transition theory predicts that we should have fewer specific events and memories from the period of lockdown.

To test these predictions, University of Alberta psychologists Norman Brown and Eamin Heanoy conducted a research study where they asked participants to recall “memorable, interesting, or important events” that occurred between September 2020 and August 2021. Their results showed that participants recalled more events from the first month of the COVID-19 lockdown (March 2020) relative to the months directly before and after the public health restrictions were imposed.

Their findings show that the lockdown caused an initial spike in the number of specific event memories individuals could recall. However, as the lockdown persisted, this memory benefit was not sustained. The lack of distinctive life events during the lockdown made it difficult for us to retrieve episodic pandemic memories.

a cinema marquee with the sign THE WORLD IS TEMPORARILY CLOSED
During stay-at-home orders, many businesses, including gyms, restaurants and movie theatres, were closed. (Edwin Hooper/Unsplash)

Increased forgetfulness

While transition theory may explain our lack of specific reminiscences about life under lockdown, the effect of the pandemic on memory seems to extend beyond our ability to recall autobiographically relevant information. Many people have reported that they became more forgetful throughout the day during the lockdown periods.

Indeed, another study found that participants tended to make more errors in a simple memory task as the duration of social isolation increased. The researchers tested participants’ ability to remember lists of words after a brief retention interval. In the first few weeks of social isolation, participants’ memory improved. However, as more time passed, participants experienced consistently worsening memory.

Similarly, an Italian study found that female university students experienced deficits in their ability to hold task-relevant information in memory during the pandemic. The same students also reported deficits in prospective memory: they were more likely to forget tasks that they had planned to complete later on.

Similarly, a Brazilian study found that roughly one-third of their participants reported experiencing worse memory during the pandemic.

Beyond the pandemic

Pandemic-related forgetfulness seems quite different in nature from the deficit observed in autobiographical memory. Nevertheless, distinctiveness may again be the culprit.

Most cognitive psychologists agree that memory is cue-based. To retrieve information from memory, we rely on specific cues that are associated with the target information. A cue can be verbal, such as a person’s name, or non-verbal, such as a location, image or emotion. However, when a cue becomes associated with too many memory traces, it can no longer support the retrieval of specific information.

a woman sits at a kitchen table with a laptop, massaging her temples
During the lockdowns, days blended into each other, with little to distinguish one day from the next. (Shutterstock)

For example, if three events occurred in three separate rooms, each room should effectively cue a single event memory. However, if all three events occurred in the same room, competition occurs between the three event memories, and the room becomes a less efficient memory cue.

During the lockdowns, our daily lives became significantly less variable. As a result, the memories that we formed were all associated with a relatively limited set of environmental cues. Therefore, when we attempt to retrieve information from memory, we experience more interference between competing memory traces and worse overall memory.

Variety, the spice of life

Although experiencing lockdown-related memory problems may have been alarming, these problems were most likely a consequence of normal memory processes under abnormal circumstances.

The last few years have shown us that participating in unique and distinctive events is essential for memory, learning and overall mental well-being. However, for certain demographics, the lockdown did not significantly change daily life.

Many individuals living in institutions such as prisons or residential care homes may continue to experience limited variation in their daily lives beyond the pandemic. Given the empirical evidence and our subjective experiences over the last three years, it seems well worth considering whether we have a duty of care to introduce variation and distinctiveness into the daily lives of these individuals.

Molly MacMillan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Highlights of My Weekly Reading and Viewing

Timothy Taylor, “Some Economics of Pharmacy Benefit Managers,” The Conversable Economist, September 28, 2023. This is the nicest treatment of the facts…



Timothy Taylor, “Some Economics of Pharmacy Benefit Managers,” The Conversable Economist, September 28, 2023. This is the nicest treatment of the facts that I’ve seen. I confess that I’ve seen PBMs as something of a black box rather than doing the standard middleman treatment that Tim does.

Tim highlights the work of Matthew Fiedler, Loren Adler, and Richard G. Frank in “A Brief Look at Key Debates About Pharmacy Benefit Manufacturers,” Brookings Institution, September 7, 2023.

Ending paragraph:

As in most economic discussions about the role of middlemen, it’s important to remember that they (usually) don’t just sit around with their hands out, collecting money. Some entity needs to negotiate on behalf of health insurance companies with drug manufacturers and pharmacies. Some entity needs to process insurance claims for drug prices. I do not mean to defend the relatively high drug prices paid by American consumers compared to international markets, nor to defend the costs and requirements for developing new drugs, nor to defend some of the mechanisms used by drug companies to keep prices high. But while it might be possible to squeeze some money out of PBMs for slightly lower drug prices, and it’s certainly possible to mess up PBMs in a way that leads to higher drug prices, it doesn’t seem plausible that reform of PBMs is going to be a powerful lever for reducing drug prices.

Thomas W. Hazlett, “Maybe Google Is Popular Because It’s Good,” Reason, September 27, 2023. I think Hazlett is the best writer in economics. This piece is a good sample.

An excerpt:

The innovation was simple in design, complex in execution, and radical in result. The business achieved a rare triple play: First, a robust new web crawler devised a superior method for finding and tagging the world’s digital content, deploying cheap PCs linked in formations to achieve momentous computing power (Brin’s genius). Second, this more prolific database of global digital content was better cataloged. A clever “Page Rank” score evaluated keyword matches, countering the influence of scammers by scrutinizing the quality of their web page links (Page’s inspiration). Third, “intention-based advertising” displayed commercial messages to searchers self-identified as ready to buy. For instance, the internet user wondering about “coho salmon, Ketchikan, kids” gave Hank’s Family Fishing B&B in Alaska a digital target for its 10 percent off coupon, while signaling to Olay not to bother advertising its skin care products. This solved the famous marketing dilemma: “I know I’m wasting half my ad budget, I just don’t know which half.” Businesses loved these tiny slices of digital real estate, and Google mined gold.

Fiona Harrigan, “America’s Immigrant Brain Drain,” Reason, October 2023.


In June, The Hechinger Report outlined how foreign governments are welcoming U.S.-trained international students. The United Kingdom offers a “high potential individual” visa, which authorizes a two-year stay and is available to “new graduates of 40 universities….21 of them in the United States.” Recruiters from Australia are “attending job fairs and visiting university campuses” in the United States. From 2017 to 2021, according to the Niskanen Center, a Washington-based think tank, Canada managed to attract almost 40,000 foreign-born graduates of American universities.

Most international students want to stay in the U.S. after graduating, but very few are able to do so. The U.S. does not have a dedicated postgraduate work visa. Canada and Australia, meanwhile, have streamlined the steps from graduation to employment to permanent residency. Graduates in the U.S. can complete Optional Practical Training, but it does not lead to permanent residency and lasts a maximum of three years.

Personal note: Actually the maximum of 3 years for Practical Training sounds good. When I took advantage of the F-1 Practical Training visa to be on the faculty of the University of Rochester, the max was only 18 months.

David Friedman, “Consequences of Climate Change,” September 24, 2023. David does his typical calm, clear, masterful job of laying out the facts. He takes the IPCC reports as given and then follows the implications, uncovering a lot of misleading claims in the process. While David takes as given that the earth will heat about another degree centigrade by about the end of the century, he lays out why we can’t be sure that the net effects are negative or positive. Watch about the first 35 minutes of his speech, before he gets to Q&A. I would point out highlights but there is zinger after zinger. And he references his blog and his substack where you can get details.

The pic above is of David Friedman giving his talk.


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Russia’s Military Budget Set To Rise By 70%

Russia’s Military Budget Set To Rise By 70%

Via Remix News,

Russian military spending is set to rise by almost 70 percent — to €106…



Russia's Military Budget Set To Rise By 70%

Via Remix News,

Russian military spending is set to rise by almost 70 percent — to €106 billion — by 2024, according to a Russian Finance Ministry document published Thursday, an increase that illustrates Moscow’s determination to continue its military intervention in Ukraine despite the human and economic costs.

According to the document, Russian defense spending will increase by 68 percent in 2024 compared to this year and will reach 10.8 trillion rubles (€106 billion).

As a result, the amount allocated to defense will represent about 30 percent of total federal spending in 2024 and 6 percent of GDP — a first in Russia’s modern history.

The budget for internal security is set to rise to 3.4 trillion rubles (€33 billion), almost 10 percent of annual federal spending.

The priorities for this budget are outlined as “strengthening the country’s defense capacity” and “integrating the new regions” of Ukraine whose annexation Moscow has demanded, as well as “social aid for the most vulnerable citizens,” just months ahead of the Russian presidential elections in spring 2024.

Conversely, total spending on education, healthcare and environmental protection accounts for barely a third of the defense budget, according to ministry figures. Overall, federal spending will total 36.7 trillion rubles (€359 billion), a dramatic 20 percent increase over 2023.

The government, however, has explained little about how it will finance this large increase, as Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Musustin said last Friday that revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons will be down sharply and will account for “a third of next year’s budget” in 2024, whereas before the invasion of Ukraine, they accounted for half the budget.

The sector used to drive Russia’s growth, hydrocarbon sales are declining due to international sanctions and the European Union’s determination to move away from energy dependence on Moscow.

One indication that the government expects a delicate month ahead for the Russian economy is that it has announced that it has based its budget forecast on the assumption of a dollar worth around 90 rubles, thus betting on a weakening of the national currency in the medium term. The draft budget law for 2024-2026 is due to be sent to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, on Friday.

Tyler Durden Sun, 10/01/2023 - 08:10

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Atlantic Overfishing: Europe’s Worst Offenders

Atlantic Overfishing: Europe’s Worst Offenders

Each year, agriculture and fisheries ministers decide on total allowable catches (TACs) for…



Atlantic Overfishing: Europe's Worst Offenders

Each year, agriculture and fisheries ministers decide on total allowable catches (TACs) for commercial fishing.

Scientific bodies, such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), provide information on the state of fish stocks around the world and recommend maximum catch levels per zone to ensure sustainable fishing.

However, this scientific advice is all too often ignored by the authorities, jeopardizing the sustainability of marine resources.

Statista's Martin Armstrong shows in the following infographic, based on the latest report from the New Economics Foundation, these European countries are the worst offenders for this, having on numerous occasions set their fishing quotas in the North-East Atlantic in excess of the sustainability recommendations in recent years.

You will find more infographics at Statista

Sweden exceeded its recommended TAC by almost 33 percent in 2020 (the latest year available), equivalent to 12,000 tonnes of fish, followed by Denmark (6 percent, 20,000 tonnes) and France (6 percent, 17,000 tonnes).

Ireland, Belgium, Spain and the UK all exceeded their targets by between 2 and 4 percent.

The year before, in 2019, the overshoot of the sustainable fishing threshold in the zone was even more pronounced: 7 percent of the recommended TAC for Spain, 9 percent for France, 10 percent for Belgium, 18 percent for Germany, 20 percent or more for Denmark, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and 52% for Sweden.

Tyler Durden Sun, 10/01/2023 - 07:35

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