If, in five years, you ask me what I remember about our second pandemic winter, I wonder what I’ll say. In early 2022, stuck at home as Omicron cases rose in Ontario, my roommate and I spent time trading stories of our core memories from the previous few years—probably having drawn subliminal inspiration from the “core memories” TikTok trend that emerged around that time. As part of the trend, TikTok users set video clips of treasured life moments to a nostalgic instrumental soundtrack, with the audio run through an echo filter to make it sound drawn from a dream. While neither of us made one of those TikToks, we do both have vivid mental highlight reels from our first few years at the University of Toronto, where we were midway through our undergraduate degrees when the pandemic hit. One of my favourite memory overlaps was a housewarming party we threw in 2019 at a previous address—our living room alive with chatter, our kitchen filled with friends dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” on the twenty-first night of September. But we didn’t talk much about the year and a half that we spent taking online classes from our parents’ homes, feeling like we were living a single day on loop. Even now, a rare pandemic anecdote will surface in my mind, and I’ll struggle to pinpoint what year it’s from. The summers of 2020 and 2021 often blur together in my mind.
Because of those gaps in my recollection, I spent that slow, quiet winter punctuating my weeks with things I hoped I would remember doing. I photographed, I wrote, I did everything I could to maintain a record of my existence at that point in time. It didn’t feel like enough. In the fall, I had returned two planters to Structube, but by January, I had no memory of doing so. My roommate was pretty sure I did it, though she couldn’t remember if it was one or two planters. Did I? Was that me? I’ve always been absent minded, but what I felt that winter was new. I was twenty-one and couldn’t help but think that this shouldn’t be happening to me.
To my knowledge, I’ve been lucky enough to dodge COVID thus far, so what I’m describing isn’t a symptom of long COVID. This is something different, maybe something related to my fairly high levels of pandemic-related anxiety. Whatever the cause, it is some small consolation that I am not alone. There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that many of us have struggled with cognition since the pandemic disrupted our lives. On social media, people complained of difficulty concentrating, psychological distress, brain fog, or hazy memory. In some cases, COVID may be the direct cause of these difficulties. New research indicates that the virus can cause brain damage of varying severity, which can commonly manifest in attention impairment. But, as far as pandemic lifestyles go, the extent of the pandemic’s impact on our brains, researchers believe, has a lot more to do with our individual experiences of those years than we might think.
We might assume that our pandemic memories are missing because information entered our brains, then slipped from it—like a toy tumbling out of a clumsy toddler’s hands. However, it’s more likely that our brains weren’t storing that information in the first place. Morgan Barense, a University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience, explains that, to encode new memories and retrieve old ones, our brains use “event boundaries, or changes in context.” Those alert our brains to pay attention to our circumstances. In other words, we’re more likely to remember the events of a day if something out of the ordinary happens.
In the months after March 2020, many people’s day-to-day lives played out against the dull backdrop of monotony. I sat in my childhood bedroom in Richmond, BC, participating in Zoom classes and playing Among Us, a popular social deduction game set on a spaceship, with my high school friends. Barense describes these repetitive environments as “cognitively sparse” and says that they come with consequences. In these environments, we may find ourselves seeking short-term enrichment through activities like doomscrolling—a term, popularized by journalist Karen K. Ho, that describes some social media users’ compulsive consumption of bad news—which “hijacks our focus.” Simultaneously, as we are encountering less novelty, our brains are receiving fewer prompts to store memories. They also take in fewer retrieval cues—things we encounter that might prompt us to remember related experiences. For example, if you drive the same route to work every day for years, you’re unlikely to remember the details of each morning’s commute. But you’re likely to remember the July afternoon you drove down the coast of California for the first time, windows down to let in the sea breeze. Years down the line, if you smell the scent of the ocean again, the details of that day might resurface in your mind.
In short, Barense says, we made fewer memories during the pandemic. That phenomenon explains why some people have felt a distorted sense of time in the past few years. If you’ve encoded more memories, Barense says, you believe more time has passed. Without regular memory function, we struggle to mark the passage of days.
Issues with time perception and memory may not be the only consequences of pandemic-related lifestyle changes. These changes may also have taxed us mentally. Donna Rose Addis, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, points out that, in general, as our routines shifted during the pandemic, we needed to process a lot of information. For some people, that may have resulted in suboptimal day-to-day cognitive performance. She also says that the brain can’t help but look ahead, and in situations like these, it will “work out a new set of predictions for how you’re going to navigate through life.”
“That work of adapting can be tiring, and it can take time,” she says.
University of Toronto Scarborough psychology professor Steve Joordens acknowledges that it’s possible for the human brain to undergo physiological changes over the course of a year or two. But he remains skeptical that the pandemic has changed our brains in any considerable way. “Brain evolution—evolution in general—is a slow process,” he points out.
Instead, he says, living with the pandemic may have placed us in a state of chronic stress. When we feel threatened, our bodies divert blood flow from our frontal lobe—which is responsible for rational thought and concentration—to the limbic system, which is responsible for survival behaviours like the fight-or-flight response.
He notes that, depending on how the pandemic changed people’s lives, it likely also altered habits—a process that functions somewhat like rewiring the brain. When you first learn to ride a bike, for example, your brain starts to create new paths between neurons. And every time you repeated the action, your body strengthened that connection. During the pandemic, many of us built new habits, like putting on a mask every time we entered a grocery store, which meant creating new pathways in our brains, says Claire Champigny, a PhD candidate in clinical developmental neuropsychology at York University.
What do these changes mean for us in the years to come? Joordens notes that we don’t have an analogy for events like the pandemic on the global scale but tells me that his parents lived through three or four years of Nazi-occupied Holland. They’ve carried on with some of their habits—“they’ll eat anything, even food that’s borderline not good,” he says, but largely, “people, once they’re back to safety, they’re able to function normally.” He thinks this will be true for most people when it comes to the pandemic. But it might not apply to everyone.
The pandemic hasn’t caused us all the same degree of distress. “We didn’t [all] necessarily think, ‘This is going to kill us,’” Joordens puts it. But, he says, some among us certainly did—especially those with certain disabilities, those living with underlying health conditions, or immunocompromised people.
Ambika Davé, who lives in Waterloo, Ontario, is immunocompromised and has severe asthma as a result of being born several months premature. We spoke in February 2022, soon after Ontario’s Omicron wave had crested. Anytime she had to leave the house, “I was chronically burdened with the worry that I was going to get sick,” she said. To keep herself safe, she double masked, used a hand sanitizer, and avoided public transit. “I became a germaphobe,” she said. Meanwhile, she acutely felt the absence of her support systems: she went months without seeing her parents or hugging her best friends.
Before the pandemic, she had already lived with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. But these past years have been particularly overwhelming for her. For months, she also struggled with brain fog, which she said feels like “when you wake up from a nap after a little too long and you’re incredibly groggy.” During our conversation, she mentioned that it was normal for her body to be in fight-or-flight mode, and she had experienced chronic fatigue as a result. In the summer of 2021, her anxiety around the pandemic became uncontrollable, and she developed panic disorder.
“Uncertainty about core survival is going to be incredibly anxiety provoking,” Barense adds, “which, even in the absence of an anxiety disorder, is going to be really bad for one’s memory and one’s overall well-being.”
Joordens says anyone who feared for their life as a result of the pandemic might have experienced strong and uncontrolled emotional reactions, like panic attacks, when they attempted to reenter regular life. He calls this “PTSD lite, so to speak—not full-blown PTSD but the same sort of symptomatology.”
Joordens explains that our brains have evolved to proactively predict immediate threats, like predators. That’s why they latch on to cues—a distinct smell in the air, a particular sound—that predicted or were reminiscent of dangerous experiences, or occurred just before an event that made us feel afraid for our lives. Our brains then connect the cues to feelings of fear. Here’s the problem, he says: in the modern world, these cues may not actually indicate a threat. If you were in a coffee shop immediately before someone started shooting a gun through the window, your brain might connect the sound of grinding coffee to fight-or-flight fear. Months later, if you hear someone grinding coffee, you might find yourself hit with panic. “That’s classic PTSD,” Joordens says. In the case of the pandemic, some people’s brains have drawn associations between stimuli like large crowds and a deep sentiment of fear.
Now we’re approaching the three-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic, and much has changed. In Canada, life doesn’t look exactly like it did in 2019, but it doesn’t resemble 2020 either. Continued COVID spread remains dangerous for both individual and community-level health, and there’s still much we don’t know about the virus’s long-term impacts, but for many people, the phase of the pandemic that felt like a time loop has elapsed. A “tripledemic” of COVID, the flu, and RSV is going around, but many in-person activities are in full swing. For others—those who are still actively trying to avoid COVID—life might feel even more isolating than ever. “I feel like an outlier for doing the things that were standard just a short while ago,” thirty-six-year-old Christine Grimaldi told the Washington Post in October 2022—referring to precautions like masking and avoiding indoor dining.
“If you’re immunocompromised right now, it’s a terrifying time,” Barense agrees. Meanwhile, those able to return to a relative normal might find their daily lives blooming with novelty once again. Barense says that, as that happens, people might experience “all sorts of enhancements for memory.”
Specifically, she points to what is called “a reminiscence bump” in memory literature: when people experience a life change, they might remember a lot of events from early life.
So, like every other stage of the pandemic, this moment in time is characterized by a wide gap in experiences. As COVID cases surged in tandem with reopening in many provinces last year, the nature of that gap simply shifted.
Champigny acknowledges the pandemic extensively changed our lives, and related habits may be hard to shake. Anecdotally, she has heard from some people who anticipate wearing masks to the grocery store for the foreseeable future. Still, she says, some underestimate the strength of our prepandemic habits. Habits forged over these past few years could be outweighed by those spanning two or three decades, as those brain pathways still exist. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we are actually overestimating how hard it’s going to be to go back to normal,” she told me in early 2022.
Joordens notes that those experiencing what he calls “PTSD lite” may need professional help readjusting to regular life after the immediate threat of COVID fades. But, for the most part, he believes in what he calls “the Great Snapback”: he is convinced that, as people return to their prepandemic environments, they will become reacquainted with their prepandemic behaviours.
Addis, too, emphasizes that humans adjust well to change. The past few years, in their own way, are proof of that. Early on in the pandemic, she points out, we didn’t understand the COVID virus and how it might impact us. “But, with that knowledge, and with time, we’ve all really adapted so well.”
“I think that shows us something about human resilience.”