The little-known effects of confinement on our memory

This text is part of the special Research section

In addition to the unexpected effects of confinement, telecommuting, and multiple Zoom meetings, memory is a collateral victim. By losing its daily bearings, the brain retains less information and learning is more difficult. This is what Isabelle Rouleau, full professor in the Department of Psychology at UQAM, argues, who is particularly interested in the brain and memory in the context of her work.

“I have been interested in memory for several years, from several angles,” she says. With the confinement, several people noticed that their memory seemed to work differently. I reflected on the subject based on our knowledge of memory and trying to find explanations for this phenomenon. “

In times of confinement, the poverty of daily experiences had an impact on memory.

“We couldn’t go out or receive friends, and we stayed all day at home, for an extended period, with poor social relations. As the ability to go out and see people returns, this effect tends to wear off, although many people say they have lost some of their social skills. “

The loss of landmarks

Memory feeds on the diversity of situations. “When you travel and see new things, you have the impression that the trip has lasted much longer, due to the wealth of events and sensations. We process a lot of new information, which is memorized, associated, integrated with what we already know, ”says the professor.

On a daily basis, it is the movements between two activities, the places we frequent, our meetings, our innocuous conversations that constitute the reference points of our memory.

“In the brain, there are structures like the seahorses, which are used to create links, to memorize, to make complex memories where there is a place, and when we move, the seahorses are put into action and do this work of establishing links with other regions of the brain which organize information and prioritize memories. This coming and going allows us to have a conscious experience of what we are doing with our life. “

Our daily activities have a significant cognitive activation effect, adds Isabelle Rouleau. The fact of having a poverty of experiences, during confinement, makes our memory work less well. A situation which is the same every day makes everything become one and the same episode which loses its distinctive character. We lose the context of place and time. We have also lost fixed landmarks like Christmas, back to school and other rituals, which give meaning and structure to our memory.

The importance of mundane conversations

Another landmark lost in confinement: the buffer space. Those moments in a day between two important activities, especially when traveling.

“During our travels, our brain is not used constantly, and we can rethink what happened, classify it in our head, and all of this helps our memory, because we use these periods to do housework. “

Our mundane conversations with the postman, the local grocery clerk, and our co-workers around the coffee machine mean more to our brains than we think. The ” small talk As it is pejoratively called, plays a cognitive role.

“These conversations are important for memory, because you tell people things, whether it’s a movie or an anecdote. This forces us to summarize and structure the information. We also receive new ideas from the outside, which must be understood and integrated. It creates a cognitively stimulating back and forth. “

Telecommuting, Zoom et Cie

For students, learning via videoconferencing is proving more difficult, and not just because of the lack of motivation it can cause.

“The students are not at all in the same mental and physical disposition to learn. Everything is always the same: they have the same problem as telecommuters who spend their day in Zoom meetings. The content of one course drives out the other, and they do not have buffer periods with their colleagues to discuss the material, they cannot play intellectual tennis and validate their understanding. They also take fewer notes, on the pretext that everything is recorded. “

Fortunately, with the gradual return to normal, these negative effects on memory are already fading, believes Isabelle Rouleau.

“You have to go out, see people and get active. I am quite optimistic. ”

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