The Pandemic Can Taint the Memory of Things We Love

Likewise, continuing with a quarantine hobby after the Covid-19 pandemic ends could help push through negative associations. Keep baking and you won’t always associate sourdough with sour times. “Assuming that after this, you can tolerate the taste and smell of sourdough at any step moving forward, you’ll be hopefully associating new memories with it, while the emotional impact of the current situation fades,” Cunningham says.

According to Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard’s psychology department, research into phobias and associated memories may provide some clues into how Covid-19 associations can be undone. “For example, a therapist who guides a client with spider phobia through a graduated exposure program that desensitizes the client’s fear in a clinical setting establishes a new memory whereby spiders are associated with diminishing fear and increasing confidence in this clinical setting,” he says.

This type of treatment helps people with phobias because they give the brain new, less scary memories of the phobic object to compete with the original association. McNally believes this framework could be useful to people worried about processing memories of the pandemic. “Although it is true that certain cues (e.g., a song, certain clothes, or an activity) will likely be linked with memories of the pandemic, those cues will also acquire competing associative links with other memories if you listen to the song, wear the sweatshirt, or engage in the activity in other contexts after the pandemic has passed,” he says. “In this way, the stimulus will not only be associated with the pandemic, it will be linked with many other strong competing associations.”

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William Hirst, a psychology professor at the New School who has studied how people remember 9/11, cautions that actively thinking about all this in the first place might make it worse. “You’ve now begun to associate sourdough with staying at home and the Covid-19 pandemic. If you routinely made sourdough and you didn’t think about sourdough in any special way related to this, then you wouldn’t have formed this link,” Hirst says. “Unfortunately, in thinking about all these things, you have now formed it.”

Hopper agrees that overthinking the connections between pastimes and quarantine right now might end up strengthening the association, but that it all depends. It is possible, for example, to transform the meaning of a particular action preemptively. By reporting a story about sourdough and quarantine, Hopper tells me, I could shift it from a “quarantine activity” into something associated with productivity and journalism rather than isolation and fear.

Creating personal myths around memories has a major impact on how strong they are. The stories people tell themselves right now are important for what they will remember later. Most memories fade, but when people incorporate them into larger anecdotes about their lives, they have a much higher chance of lingering.

“Most people have very clear memories of the day of 9/11. What they did, how they learned about it,” Hirst says. “These memories tend to be quite long-lasting. They don’t necessarily have to be accurate. In fact, they’ve turned out not to be all that accurate.” He sees several reasons why Covid-19 recollections will be distinct. The 9/11 attacks were an “acute, sudden thing,” he says, while the pandemic is a prolonged, currently interminable crisis. And while the 9/11 attacks took place on airplanes and in New York and Washington, DC, the national experience was one of united horror at the loss of life. The experience of the pandemic is more far-reaching, but also more stratified. “For some part of the population, it has been extremely traumatic—that is the right word,” Hirst says. “But for other parts of the population, it’s been more of an inconvenience.” This disparity of experiences will affect what is known as the collective memory of the event.

“The evidence is that these medical emergencies somehow or other don’t seem to become part of history,” Hirst says. “The particular generation that lived through it will remember it. But will it be passed on? I’m skeptical, actually,” Hirst says. “More people died because of the Spanish flu than died in World War I and World War II combined, but if you ask people to list the most important events in history in the last 150 years, nobody is going to mention the Spanish flu. It has completely slid from our collective consciousness.” The 1918 flu may be in the conversation now, but only because Covid-19 is sparking renewed interest. On the whole, people decide what gets remembered—and how.

Linking sourdough and other activities with Covid-19, then, might be beneficial, a way to keep the lessons from this difficult period present. When the pandemic is over, Hopper believes it could be healing to develop new traditions to acknowledge this uncertain period and try to reclaim the things we’re associating with it. “There’s the potential to create rituals to transform your experiences,” he says. For example, baking bread to share once it is safe to invite friends over. Maybe throw on some Fiona Apple and cozy sweatpants while you do it. Deciding to remember could be the best way to heal.


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