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A day off when the local school was bombed. Being so bored that waiting for fruit to fall off a gingko tree becomes a source of entertainment. Dead bodies in the street. A pilot, presumed dead, walking into a crowded restaurant to greet his astounded partner and friends.
These are all memories from people who lived through capital-B Big historical events: World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution in China; the scenes and experiences that stuck in their minds decades later.
As we experience a global pandemic, it’s odd to realize that we’re currently living through a new Big historical event. We’ll be telling our children about it, documenting it in history textbooks, and swapping our shared experiences for years to come.
Moments of each day feel unforgettable, because of how strange or tragic they are: the death count updates, the 7 pm applause for healthcare workers, watching press conferences with governors and infectious disease experts, grocery store lines around the block, and working from home day after day (for some of us) as the streets of the busiest cities in the world stand still and empty.
But what exactly will we remember years from now? The unnerving truth is that we may not remember much, because we never do—that’s not the way memory works. We don’t remember each minute, or each day or week. We forget people, places, moods, and events.
In 1890, psychologist William James wrote that emotional events have such a huge effect on our minds they “almost leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues.” But for many of us—especially those isolating at home—memory researchers say it’s more likely it will become a blur.
Those on the frontlines, like healthcare workers, will remember it differently. They’ll witness the toll on human life firsthand and emotions like grief, fear, and anxiety will heighten their memories. They may end up haunted, the way people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are. For people facing other extreme stresses— whose loved ones get sick and die alone, who are jobless and frightened by the economic downturn— traumatic memories might continue to surge to the surface (though not necessarily accurately).
For those whose lives remain unscathed, who have the privilege of waiting out the weeks without much daily variety, this stretched out “historical event” isn’t conducive to creating sharp, defined memories. Despite having conscious awareness of each moment now, a lot of it will slip away. Recognizing that most of what’s happening will eventually be buried in the recesses of our brains might serve as a small comfort that at some point in the future, some of us will be free from this time period. Some of us will have the luxury of saying, with a little strain: “Remember when…?”
Cyrus Faryar lived in London during the Blitz bombings of World War II. The 84-year-old remembered that as a child, they were all given gas masks to go to school. He often heard the air raid sirens going off, and it would be followed by the sound of explosions throughout the city. One day, “we were all delighted to discover that our school had been bombed. So, we had the day off,” he said.
He witnessed “dogfights”: American or British planes shooting with German planes above the city. Faryar has a clear visual memory of one plane being struck, and a pilot floating down, suspended by a parachute. “If the people around us who were watching determined it was a British plane, there was a terrible concern,” he said. “But if it was a German plane that had been destroyed, there would be public applause. People in the streets would cheer. That’s a memory.”
Powerful emotions—both happy and sad— influence whether we remember something or not. This means each individual has specific and unique emotional instances that stand out. For the current pandemic, it might be the first person you knew personally to get COVID-19,or a death in your family or social circle. Yet just because you end up remembering something rarely means it’s 100 percent accurate. We know that people often have wrong or incomplete memories, even from once-in-a-lifetime events.
In 1986, a cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser asked his students about the Challenger explosion the day after it happened—what they were doing and who they were with. Just over two years later, he asked them the same questions. The students, even those who were extremely confident in their answers, didn’t score very well. “The average student scored less than three on a scale of seven,” Maria Konnikova wrote in the New Yorker. “A quarter scored zero.”
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We may remember parts of our experience and forget others, retaining the most emotionally charged details but obscuring the rest. If an event is more neutral, a person could remember each detail the same way. If it’s an emotional one, they remember the parts that are most emotional, forgetting peripheral details.
In a 2003 study led by Kathy Pezdek, a cognitive psychologist at Claremont Graduate University in California, people who lived in New York during 9/11 had the most accurate memories of the events that took place, but the worst autobiographical recall—memories about themselves and their daily lives and perceptions during that same period—compared to college students from California and Hawaii.
“If you see someone holding a gun maybe you’ll remember the gun in exquisite detail but you have no idea what was the color of the building,” said Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist who studies memory at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
This explains how people can forget details you wouldn’t expect them to. Schiller’s father, who lived during the Holocaust, once watched a trial of Nazis being prosecuted. Lawyers asked an older woman how she washed her clothes at the camps and she couldn’t remember. “My father said after he thought about it and he didn’t remember either. You wouldn’t remember a lot of those things,” Schiller said. “With emotion, it’s almost like changing the focus of a camera.”
My mother, 59, remembered that during the Cultural Revolution in China, when she went to sleep at night, my grandmother would sit up guarding the front door, holding a steel metal bar, in fear of overnight intruders—a threat during the in-faction communist fighting in Chengdu.
She also remembered how her nanny put her baby sister on her back, and the three of them would walk to her nanny’s apartment, cautiously, even though it was just one block away.
“Somehow that image of this old lady with my sister on her back, and me following her, I can still remember that image today,” she said. “It feels like it’s so far away. Almost ancient time. Yet my memory still remembers so clearly, like it’s still yesterday.”
In a 2005 interview with NPR, philosopher Alain de Botton commented on how strange it is that we remember some things so clearly and others not at all. “It’s very possible to remember with incredible clarity a moment that occurred to us, you know, in early childhood, while the whole of last week seems lost in a kind of murkiness,” de Botton said.
Cognitive psychologists have found that other characteristics make something more memorable too—which could offer clues as to what parts of our pandemic experience may stay with us.
Novelty is one. If something is new, surprising, or different from what you normally experience. Jennifer Talarico, a professor of psychology at Lafayette College, said what’s intriguing to her about the pandemic is that there’s a paradox: what’s happening is something that none of us have lived through before and yet, our days are filled with sameness.
“Our worlds are constrained and we’re in the same places doing the same things with the same people,” she said. “Those of us that are fortunate enough to be able to work from home are not going to different places and meeting with different people.”
She doesn’t think we’re going to remember less necessarily, but that we’re likely to merge together many different memories—ending up with a generic sense of what it was like, and we may struggle to come up with specific event memories later on. “There’s going to be a lot of blending together of these days, weeks, months,” Talarico said.
Dorthe Berntsen, a professor of psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark, agreed that a lot of what we’re living through right now will become very blurred. She thinks we won’t remember each individual day at all. Our old daily lives used to have more variation, and the loss of that means that this time period could be represented differently in our memories.
Moments that mark transition are more memorable. We might hang onto those: the first of something, the last of something: The first day you worked from home after your office closed. Last takeout meal from your neighborhood restaurant before they shut down. Any turning points. “We remember these moments where all of a sudden, things change,” Berntsen said.
Regarding her 2003 9/11 study, Pezdek said when the planes first hit the World Trade Center, people didn’t know what was going on. They couldn’t construct a narrative. “They didn’t have the whole story for a good 30 to 40 minutes after the first plane hit the first tower,” she said. “And so, that first 30 minutes is not well remembered.”
Our memories also help us to construct a cohesive story about what’s happening, Pezdek said. “As human beings, we tend to always try to make sense of the moment.”
This is relevant to the coronavirus pandemic because, especially in the United States, the narrative has consistently changed. Donald Trump initially downplayed it, and the “re-opening” of the country has been suggested over and over again. A lack of testing has led to an inaccurate count of how many people have the virus, or are dying from it.
This inconsistency will contribute to our memories being fuzzy, Pezdek said. “It’ll be way off because it all keeps changing,” she said. “It is a struggle to construct a narrative. What’s the story? What’s going to be the end of the story? It’ll just be a chaotic mishmash of things that happened.”
What about distinctive figures, or people? Will New Yorkers remember Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conferences, or Americans, the reassuring presence of Anthony Fauci? “You’ll probably have a more general memory,” Talarico said. “A generic representation of lots of individual specific events, rather than specific appearances or press briefings.”
Berntsen said that another thing we might remember from this time, strangely enough, are things that we didn’t or couldn’t do, because there are likely a lot of emotions and feelings of loss around them. How you couldn’t see your families for the holidays, go to a wedding or funeral, see your friends, have a birthday party. “These will be memories,” she said. “But memories of an absence.”
Memories can be referred to as a camera that takes snapshots that we can return to later. But research, including Schiller’s, has shown that our memories are not static photographs. Memories can be strengthened or weakened, or incorporate new information.
Our personalities influence what we remember about ourselves and our lives. “Someone who thinks they are courageous might fail to remember a time when they acted cowardly,” the New Scientist reported in 2012. Cultural influences impact memory too. For example, Qi Wang, a researcher at Cornell University has found that in China, people’s memories are less personal and focus on historical events instead; this may be because Chinese culture is less focused on the individual and more on the collective society.
Schiller studies the reconsolidation of memory, when we pull a memory out and remember it again. It isn’t like going back into a photo album—in the brain, the memory gets reconstructed, sometimes leading to alterations in it. “It’s almost like a new event,” she said. “Remembering something is like a new event in your life.”
I had that concept on my mind when I asked people about their clearest memories from the historical events they lived through—that in some ways, they were reliving them with me, as we will be reliving our pandemic memories, accurate or not, when we tell them in the future.
Dan Nguyen, a 70-year-old who lived in Vietnam during the Vietnam war, had one standout memory: “You ask me what I remember, and at that time, I saw blood and death every day. That got into my mind really seriously.” A memory of violence has remained vivid for my mother too: She was walking on the street and a person who was killed was prominently displayed on a truck driving by.
“The body was just on top of it,” my mother said. “I remember that very clearly. That was the first dead body I saw. I just happened to be on the street. I don’t even remember who I was with, must have been with my mom or something. I still remember that truck, the body on top of it. And people standing kind of hanging out the passenger side.”
We slightly alter our memories each time we retell them. “It won’t be exactly the same every time,” said Joff Lee, a memory researcher at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “There will be certain elements that are conserved and always the same, or seem to always be the same, but little details may change.”
This makes memory less of an individual’s property and something we share—both with those we tell later, and those we’re living through history with now. That resonated with Faryar. who lived in London during the Blitz. When I asked him why he thought some moments stayed with him, after all this time, while others were lost, he said: “I think what I recall are the events that did not happen to me exclusively, but had an impact on a group of people: a family, a household, a classroom. There was a sense that we were all a part of this. I’m not alone.”
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