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).
Some of us will have the luxury of saying, with a little strain: "Remember when…?"
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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.”
“With emotion, it’s almost like changing the focus of a camera.”
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.
“There’s going to be a lot of blending together of these days, weeks, months."