Beyond Borders: How will we remember our time in lockdown?

Beyond Borders is TEDxLondon’s exploration of different topics and ideas that inspire and intrigue us. In this special lockdown edition, we ask memory scientist Dr Julia Shaw for her perspective on life in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s no understatement to say we’re living through history right now. As confusion persists around which day of the week it is, many of us are tracking time in different ways: from journaling, to video diaries, to tagging today’s online workout with the hashtag ‘Covid19’. But what will we remember about our time spent locked in collective isolation during the coronavirus pandemic? And how can we be certain those memories are a truthful account of what we actually experienced on a daily basis?

In this month’s Beyond Borders, we asked Dr Julia Shaw, a psychological scientist at UCL, best known for her work in the areas of memory and criminal psychology, for her perspective on the impact the extended lockdown is having on our memories.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily remembrance of things as they were”

Marcel Proust

Your most recent research shows that people are no better than chance (50-50) at identifying whether a memory is true or false. Why is that?

Julia: Our brains are capable of incredibly realistic illusions of memory. Unlike deception, people who have false memories don’t know they are describing an event that didn’t actually happen. Additionally, true and false memories feel largely the same to the person who has them. It’s probably because they feel real that they look real.

What is happening to our memories during lockdown and how is our ability to mark time and accurately recall events affected? Why might this be problematic?

Julia: Our internal timelines are lacking what memory researchers call “temporal landmarks”. These are memorable, usually exciting or unusual, events that help us break up our sense of time. During normal life, these often involve doing things with other people like going to events, or seeing or experiencing new things – typically outside of your house. But being stuck at home, routine and same-ness are memory killers. Things start to blur. What you did this week or last month all starts to become difficult to decipher.

Why are false memories dangerous?

Julia: In many contexts it doesn’t really matter if you precisely remember details of experiences, or even whether things happened at all. It may seem mind-bending, but your memory is full of errors and false memories already. However, it becomes really important in a few contexts including;

  • Remembering important information like government guidelines during the COVID pandemic. Getting these wrong can put lives at risk.
  • Remembering negative events that can later become the topic of heated arguments with friends and family. False memories can be the centre of these.
  • Remembering crimes. This is the context in which I work. False memories of crime can lead to miscarriages of justice.

Should people be taking extra measures to maintain their sense of time and create reliable memories during the coronavirus pandemic? If so, what actions would you recommend?

Julia: What I do with my partner is I try to create landmark events at home. Things that we can use to break time into “before” and “after”. Right now we are doing theme nights centred around countries we have never been to. We listen to podcasts about the country, cook the national dish, learn facts, and watch a documentary or film about it. It’s quite a bit of work – but that’s exactly why it’s an effective landmark. If you were to go to an event IRL you would probably also read about it, spend time planning it, and spend overall a fair amount of time and energy on the experience. We are going through countries alphabetically which also helps with organising time – tonight we are learning about Botswana.

You’ve also done a lot of research on workplace harassment and being active bystanders. Now that we’re all working and living our lives more online during the coronavirus pandemic, how can we be active ‘online’ bystanders?

Julia: Whenever you learn about, or see, workplace harassment or discrimination, it’s best if you make a note about it. Ideally something that is time stamped, like an email. Then, I would approach the victim and say that you noticed the inappropriate behaviour and (if you feel safe doing so) that you would be able to come forward with them to your/their employer. We created Spot so you can document what happened through our free chatbot and you can report what happened online. If necessary, Spot also allows you to stay anonymous in your first report and you can disclose your name if or when you feel able to do so. We work with employers to tackle all kind of compliance issues and make workplaces safer.

Are you finding reporting of bullying and harassment has changed during the pandemic?

Julia: We might expect the figure to go down, but as far as I understand there has not been a decrease in the use of Spot. Harassment can happen anywhere, and unfortunately almost all forms of harassment can continue online.

Dr Julia Shaw co-founded the memory and artificial intelligence startup Spot in 2017 to help employees report workplace harassment and discrimination.  Her bestselling debut book, The Memory Illusion, was published in 2016 to critical acclaim and has been translated into 20 languages. She went on to publish her second international bestseller Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side in 2019. 

She has also been a TEDxLondon speaker twice and her talks on memory and being active bystanders in the face of workplace harassment have garnered nearly 2 million views on TED.com.  More recently, Julia was a guest on our Conversations Beyond Borders – a weekly webinar series, during which we ask experts to help us go beyond the headlines to discuss issues that matter.


Conversations Beyond Borders will be returning on 15th May

Click here to watch the recording of our recent conversation with Julia, as well as all of our past Conversations Beyond Borders. Also check out some of our key takeaways in these images. We’ll be sending out more information on how you can register for our next online event in the next few days. 

Thank you to the talented Josie Ford of Studio Raa for these images, created during our Conversations Beyond Borders.

Further Reading: Memory Lane