The year 2020 will go down in history as one of global disruption and unfathomable human tragedy. None of us wanted the pandemic to happen, and we won’t care to live through a similar experience again.
Yet it’s human nature to seek silver linings amid such upsetting events. A survey by Pew Research shows that a large majority of Americans feel that there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic.
Not all of these lessons have something to do with religious beliefs. At least half chose to focus instead on concerns relating to society, relationships, health and safety practices, the environment, government, or the economy.
All of these issues are of great importance to humanity moving forward. But it’s possible that as we anticipate a return to normal, we may overlook the most important lesson of all. We need to slow down the pace of living, be present, and really absorb and remember what matters.
The Persistence of Memory is perhaps the most famous of Salvador Dalí’s works. It’s worth noting that Dalí painted this in the wake of the First World War, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and his own expulsion from his father’s home. Such turbulent events on a global and personal scale surely compare to the worst of what many of us have experienced in 2020.
The painting holds lasting appeal because it speaks truth to the nature of our perception and recall, alluding to decay in reality as well as memory. Dalí wasn’t formally trained in psychology, but our modern understanding of memory backs up the painting’s statement.
Memory is an unreliable system of information retrieval. We forget things all the time. The information may be completely lost, or it may be stored in our long-term memory. In the latter case, several factors can contribute to our failure to access it on demand.
The mechanics of forgetting
You don’t need science to tell you that forgetfulness is directly correlated with the length of time passed since an event. Yet some memories persist over the years while others fade in a matter of days. And as any student facing an exam would tell you, importance doesn’t always seem to matter.
One of the theories around forgetting is based on interference. Similar memories tend to interfere with one another. This contributes to the ‘sandwich’ or ‘list’ effect. You’re more likely to recall the first or last event, like the items at the top and bottom of a list. Everything else gets sandwiched and forgotten.
Other views hold that only certain bits of information get encoded into our long-term memory. The other details are forgotten because they are only retained in the short term. Certain cues can also facilitate the recall of information.
The study of memories is still highly complex and inexact. All of these theories likely hold some aspect of the truth.
The implications for this age of the pandemic are both obvious and dire. How many days can you really remember since the lockdowns began? How many events stand out distinctly in your memory?
We are no longer able to experience as much novelty as before. Our passports are in storage, along with Obermeyer pants, backpacks, and other trappings of the travel lifestyle. When things eventually return to normal, the danger is that these current times of uncertainty will become compressed in recollection as we resume more eventful lifestyles.
If the pandemic does offer many vital lessons, we can’t risk having their importance fade as our memory of this time diminishes. Practice mindfulness, and make an effort to slow down and stay present in each moment. Appreciate the things we’re doing to survive now, and you can retain those lessons in the future.