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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Real Memory, Fake Memory – the Pandemic Has Changed Even Our Memories

The stress and emotional turmoil we have experienced over the past year have exacerbated our tendency to remember things that never happened!! It never occurred to me that this might be a big problem, but it sure explains a lot. Without our conscious knowledge we have a tendency to misperceive, misremember, and make up memories. When push came to shove during COVID, the stresses, politicization, conspiracy theories, and fake news compounded our memory issues.

These mental flubs, which can be a big contributor to ideological polarization among friends and family, also explain how people offer up such rich detail in congressional or court testimony about events that occurred weeks, months, or even years ago or how your favorite older relative vividly recall childhood events. All such distant memories offer only the gist of what really happened at best, and at worst, they are downright wrong. (Britt, R.

While neurons storing a particular memory are firing, the memory can be reinforced and solidified – or reimagined into something that doesn’t even resemble reality. Our memory is not designed to remember everything forever. Researcher Marianne Redden, Ph.D. says that “Its purpose is to help you predict (and survive) the future.” Every time that a memory is reconfigured for recall it opens up to host potential errors, with consequences ranging from benign to tragic, from innocent lies to dangerously inaccurate beliefs about COVID-19 or other hot button issues.

Here’s why recollections tend to go wrong, each of them working in concert with others.

1. Encoding errors and misremembering

Memory starts with the coding of observations or experiences, which means storing in our minds the perception of sights, sounds, smells, and other inputs. But everyone brings different experiences, expectations, and skills to the instant of perception. Attention to the event plays a big role in memory. How much we pay attention, which aspects we pay attention to, and even simple differences like viewing angle affect what we actually encode. For example, one person notices a roomful of people wearing masks, while another person focuses on the few people who are without masks.

Often, we misremember events. No one is immune to this occurrence, and it happens to people of all ages. There are several different ways we misremember – attending several different meetings in a day and misremembering who said what; or believing that you told your significant other that you would stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, when in fact you never mentioned anything. Or thinking you had met someone before when perhaps they just looked familiar.

Dr. Nancy Dennis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, says “These are just false memories. They are all examples of simply remembering things wrong, and they are not the same as forgetting.”

2. Negative emotions and the power of suggestion can distort memories

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., a professor of psychological science and law at the University of California, Irvine is a pioneer in the study of false memories. In a breakthrough study she showed how easy it was to implant false childhood memories. After talking with relatives about the childhoods of 24 adults, her team prepared four one-paragraph for those 24 adults, who became the study participants. One of the stories was false, describing a plausible shopping trip in which the person, back when they were five years-old, had been lost. After a series of follow-up interviews, six of the 24 adults (25%) claimed to remember the fictitious, traumatic childhood event.

No one is immune to this power of suggestion, Loftus says. Even people with superior autobiographical memories (hyperthymesia) who “remember just about everything they did every day of their adult life” can be easily manipulated in what they remember.

Dr. Loftus also said the stress of lost jobs, lost loved ones, or the isolation of the pandemic may heighten the tendency to succumb to the power of suggestion. “Life stress can hurt memory and make people more susceptible to distorted or false memories,” Loftus says.

Multiple studies have shown, in fact, that negative emotions – from stress to fear to depression – can leave people open to developing false memories. Persistent negative moods, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), “significantly increase false memories,” says Charles Brainerd, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of human cognition at Cornell University. “So continuously being in a dark mood” is not helpful for “remembering the details of your life.” Emotions fueled by the pandemic would certainly qualify, Brainerd says. “Things that substantially elevate people’s stress levels lead to poor encoding of events as we experience them, which in turn elevates false memories.”

3. Fake news makes the distortion worse

Applying the concept of memory distortion to current events, Loftus and colleagues presented six news reports to 3,140 voters in Ireland a week before the 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion. Two of the stories were made up, telling of illegal or inflammatory behavior of campaigners on either side of the issue. In subsequent questioning, nearly half said they had memories of the events that, in fact, never occurred. Even being told some of the stories were fake, many of the people clung to their false memories, recalling details that were not even in the fake stories.

In a new unpublished study, which is currently under review, Dr. Gillian Murphy, a memory researcher at the University College Cork in Ireland, presented real and fabricated news about COVID-19 to 3700 people. Those who considered themselves very knowledgeable about COVID-19 were more likely than others to develop memories for stories whether they are true or fake. “Surprisingly, we found that those who were more anxious about the pandemic were actually less likely to report false memories,” Murphy says.

In another not-yet-published paper from the same study, fake news sometimes caused small shifts in peoples’ intended behavior. “Reading a fake story about problems with a COVID-19 vaccine was associated with less willingness to get a vaccine in the future,” Murphy says.

4. Your beliefs inform your memories

People are more likely to develop false memories if a fake news story aligns with their views. Murphy is working on another study, not yet published, assessing false memories for public events related to the feminist movement. Early finding show “those who oppose feminism were more likely to falsely remember a fabricated news event that portrayed feminism negatively,” and the opposite is true for those who favor feminism.

Murphy thinks the same thing could happen among people in any highly emotional environment or partisan election, including the 2020 U.S. presidential election or the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters are, in particular, “likely to remember fake scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate,” she says. “In countries where COVID is particularly politicized, like the U.S., I would expect ideology to impact false memory susceptibility.”

Some people will even ignore facts that don’t fit their views to the point that they create a false memory of the facts being just the opposite, according to a December 2019 study in the journal Human Communication Research.

The ‘confirmation bias’, as it is often called, helps create stark rifts between people on everything from politics to religion and, yes, pandemics. And we all do it, blocking out legitimate facts that contradict our views without even realizing it, according to a brain-imaging study earlier this year in the journal Nature Communications. The more confident a person is in their view, the more likely their neural processing will change to “decrease sensitivity to disconfirming information,” says study leader Max Rollwage, a doctoral student at University College London’s Wellcome Center for Human Neuroimaging.

5. Extrapolating from the gist

Brainerd, the Cornell researcher, says there are two types of memory according to theory: verbatim memories of the literal details and gist memories of the meaning of events.

Gist memories, the nonverbatim kind, “range from slightly imperfect to very imperfect, getting worse as time passes,” he says. “Over time, even verbatim memories fade, and we are left with the gist.”

The brain, bombarded with information, organizes it with the help of this gist, or what researchers call schematic memory. False memories can arise as we start to fill in the blanks.

“Everyone does this to some extent,” says Dennis, the Penn State psychologist. “Our memories do not work like a tape recorder,” she explains. “Memories have to be reconstructed when they are being retrieved.” We retain a general understanding of an event, along with some details, the thinking goes. Then we are prone to extrapolating details inaccurately, by leading to an inability to distinguish between real and false memories.

Long-term memory takes on a whole new meaning. How we remember, misremember, and imagine these pandemic times could having a considerable effect on our future thinking.


Britt, R.R. (August 18, 2021). The pandemic is messing with your memories. Retrieved from


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