How Isolation Impacts our Information Processing and Memory

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A study has shown that the repetitiveness of daily life, during quarantine from the COVID-19 pandemic, has affected individuals’ memory and cognitive ability.

A recent study on a large sample of Italian individuals during a coronavirus lockdown last year, found that the increase in mind wandering and distractions was a common consequence. A professor from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has noted that in this study of 4000 people, 30% experienced changes in their daily cognition. Some of these changes included memory problems, such as having difficulty in maintaining attention in daily tasks.

Individuals who have had to quarantine at some point may not be surprised by this finding. Given that going from one zoom session to another and another has now become a customary way in which we deal with school or work deadlines, some may find the repetitive and monotonous days to be mentally draining. The study also revealed that these effects were worse for those dealing with general stress, anxiety, or depression.

The study attributes the decline in cognitive ability and memory to the repetitive nature of life that has been brought about due to quarantining indoors. With people forced to stay at home all day and perform daily routines within the confines of their houses, it has somehow created the effect that they are living in their own Groundhog Day, making it difficult to consolidate memories and retrieve them later on. As you may be aware, Groundhog Day is a film in which a person finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Professor Hayes from UNSW noted that “what we know about human memory is that the context is really important”, hence, when you feel like you may be living the same day for months, creating and retrieving memories of things you may have experienced or learned becomes challenging. Context refers to your brain encoding other information, such as the location of learning, even if you are focused on something specific, or learning something new. It is that context, during lockdowns, which has made it difficult to retrieve experiences or information later. When the context constantly evolves and changes, we visit different places during different times, it becomes easier to consolidate and recall memories.  

While our options are limited, given COVID-19 restrictions, some studies have encouraged incorporating variation in your day in the form of exercise or learning a new skill, which can help with memory and cognitive function. If you are able to go outside of the house, perhaps run on a different track, or incorporate new exercises, it will help your brain encode memories better. Importantly, variation of activities inside can also help avoid the memory fog that comes with lockdown. 

In summary, when you find yourself in a Groundhog Day rut, as a result from lockdowns (or not), it is important to find ways to break that cycle through a variation in your daily life, whether that is from exercising or finding other interesting and different activities to partake in. If not, days tend to blur, giving each day the same context, making it harder to separate experiences. As a result our memories can become foggy, and our cognitive functions perhaps, impaired. 

Source: Santangelo, G., Baldassarre, I., Barbaro, A. et al. Subjective cognitive failures and their psychological correlates in a large Italian sample during quarantine/self-isolation for COVID-19. Neurol Sci 42, 2625–2635 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10072-021-05268-1

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10072-021-05268-1 

Image: https://unsplash.com/photos/w59nZxIkw8M 

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