People are partying tightly together, friends are hugging each other unabashedly, no one is asking for a vaccination card anymore. Life is back, Corona seems almost forgotten. According to surveys, many people expected that we would never shake hands again. Many could not have imagined that they would ever feel comfortable in a crowd again. But in many cases these feelings went away almost as quickly as they came. But how can that be?
Forgetting is vital, say brain researchers and psychologists. If we always saved everything and everything was always equally important, we would be unable to act. The animated film "Inside Out" ("Everything is upside down") explains the processes very clearly: Like in an egg sorting plant, the colorful souvenir balls in the head of the main character are constantly sorted out and rearranged in a gigantic tube system. What comes to light in which form also depends on which emotion is currently dominant.
We certainly haven't forgotten Corona in the sense of erasing it, says psychologist Susanne Spieß from the Professional Association of German Psychologists. The question is not so much what we remember as how we remember it. Spiess compares this to a mourning process in which there are different phases. "We can stay with the feeling that we associated with it at the time. Or we can deal with the feelings, the thoughts, the situation itself in different ways. Then the healing begins."
Forget: Separate the unimportant from the important
The supposed "forgetting performance" is actually a "processing performance," says Spieß. How well that works also depends on “how well I can be consciously relaxed in the here and now”. In addition, different selection processes took place in each person, depending on previous experiences, preferences, fears and attitudes: Anyone who has always felt uncomfortable in crowds will probably have this feeling of caution - reinforced during the pandemic - longer than someone who has always felt uncomfortable felt right at home at street festivals.
Towards the end of the Corona period, there may have been a kind of desensitization, says Spieß. The first hug after the lockdowns still felt strange, especially because you always had the perspective of the other person in mind: is that ok for her or him? But with each hug, the irritation disappeared a little more. It was probably faster for people who always hugged everyone than for people who prefer to avoid physical contact.
Martin Korte, Professor of Cellular Neurobiology at the Technical University of Braunschweig, compares forgetting with "a well-programmed spam filter". To forget means to separate the unimportant from the important. It is only because we forget that we can discover new things, think abstractly and solve problems. Forgetting allows the brain to focus on the most important information.
Consciously suppress unwanted memories
"Deleting and forgetting are therefore not mistakes or mishaps in perception, rather they are an integral part of the necessary processes," Korte wrote in 2018 in "Spektrum der Wissenschaft". Only "a tiny part" of our experiences is stored in the long term. "Write-protected" are often traumatic experiences, for example. And the memories change a little bit with every call.
Dominique de Quervain and Andreas Papassotiropoulos from the University of Basel have demonstrated the role of emotions in memories 2022 using magnetic resonance imaging. They showed 1418 people emotional and neutral images and recorded their brain activity. "In a subsequent memory test, the study participants remembered both positive and negative images much better than neutral images," the university summarized the results published in the specialist journal PNAS.
You can also control what you want to remember to a certain extent, as Ann-Kristin Meyer and Roland G. Benoit from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig showed in 2022. If you consciously suppress unwanted memories, the next time you recall them, they will be less vivid and faint than before.
Memories of the Corona period
How we remember the Corona period also depends, among other things, on the emotions associated with it, says Spieß. People who have suffered losses, who have lost someone close to them or their job, are likely to have a harder time coming out of the feeling. People “who can make sense of the Corona crisis” can close particularly well, as Spiess says.
For example, these could be people who are proud that we as a society have mastered this together - or who are happy that they can now work from home on a daily basis. "Then you save the crisis more as a learning experience."
With the distance, the memory becomes anecdotal: Do you remember how they always had to put a lid on the coffee in the café, which everyone then threw in the wastebasket in front of the shop because only "to go" was allowed and as "to go" only counted when there was a lid on it? Today we find excesses like this funny, back then we were annoyed about them. What happened in between, says psychologist Spieß, is "that we left the victim role".