Don’t know what day it is anymore? York U memory expert explains that ‘Groundhog Day’ feeling

Image of the brain

As days of social isolation from our family, friends and work colleagues drag on, so does our sense of time. The monotony of our daily routines in this new normal may, for some, feel like a scene out of the movie Groundhog Day, with one day seeming no different than the next. 

Shayna Rosenbaum

There’s a reason our brains are processing these COVID-19 days the way they are, says Shayna Rosenbaum in York University’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. Professor and York Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health and core member of the Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) program, Rosenbaum studies episodic memories and the brain’s ability to process time.

“We tend to encode meaningful events into memories, and these are typically defined by boundaries between events,” says Rosenbaum. “Without these kinds of boundaries it’s very difficult to have the feeling that there are divisions within our day. The experience of the pandemic doesn’t seem to have the same boundaries or divisions as other life events.”

You can think of a day as being made up of multiple episodes and these are defined by time and space, says Rosenbaum. “But when you’re experiencing different types of routines, and little changes from one day to the next, it’s really hard to be able to reconstruct the details belonging to a specific happening on a particular day.”

This may also impact our ability to remember the details of the pandemic once it’s over.

“Because there are so many overlapping details relating to the pandemic itself, it’s going to tax our ability to separate the details and encode memories as unique,” she says. “It’s very likely that even if we have no difficulty extracting the generalities of the pandemic, it will be difficult for us to retrieve specific details because they might not have been encoded in the first place.”

Watch Rosenbaum discuss her research in the video below.

Find out more about how York University is creating positive change in the COVID-19 pandemic here.