youThree days after Jenna Tocatlian saw Taylor Swift perform at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, she was still elated. But something felt strange as she tried to relive memories of her: in her mind, where the vivid details of the concert should have been playing on a loop, there was only a blank space.
“Post-concert amnesia is real,” says Tocatlian, 25, who lives in New York. He got to hear her first choice for one of Swift’s late-night “surprise songs”:Better man—and the experience still feels surreal. “If I hadn’t had the 5-minute video that my friend kindly took of me listening to it, I probably would have told everyone it didn’t happen,” he says. During the hour-long wait to leave the stadium, he began to replay the set list and asked his friends, “Did he really play that? How much did he play? Tocatlian attributes it to sensory overload, and the fact that he had been dreaming of the big night for so long, it was hard to comprehend what was really happening. “It’s hard to put together what you actually witness,” she says. “You get all these emotions as your favorite songs come on and you’re like, ‘Wow, where am I?’”
Every weekend from March through August, hundreds of thousands of people fill stadiums across the US to watch Swift’s hugely popular three-hour Eras Tour. Many later take to social media platforms like Reddit to describe her inability to remember small details or even large parts of the show. one person wrote that they had waited six months for the concert, and after it was over, their brain tried to convince them that they had not been there. Another wondered if they had dissociated during the sameand described feeling guilty for not leaving with more vivid memories.
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That resonates with Nicole Booz, 32, of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who attended Swift’s May 14 runway show in Philadelphia. Looking back, she feels like “an out-of-body experience, like she didn’t really happen to me,” she says. “However, I know it did, because my bank account took a hit of $950 to cover the ticket.”
So what is going on? People may just be too excited to begin with, explains Ewan McNay, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany. “This is not a concert-specific phenomenon, it can happen anytime you are in a very emotional state,” he says. People getting married, for example, often say they can’t remember their first dance, or if their Aunt Josephine was there. As the body’s stress levels increase, in response to exciting or distressing factors, neurons associated with memory begin to fire indiscriminately. That makes it “really hard” to form new memories. “If you’re a little bit nervous, with a little bit of excitement, you’ll actually remember better,” says McNay. “But too much emotion pushes you over the edge in terms of memory formation, and you can’t make memories.”
There is a scientific and biological explanation for exactly what happens when you get so excited (what the body sees as a state of stress). It starts pumping glucose, the brain’s favorite molecule for fueling memory, thinking and learning, from the liver into the bloodstream. Imagine you run into a bear in the woods, for example: “You want that fuel for your muscles to go and fight the bear or run from the bear,” McNay says, without wasting it on something like memory formation. At the same time, the vagal nerves are stimulated, which regulate the functions of the internal organs. “You’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re really stressed: we’re running from the bear or we’re watching Taylor Swift.'”
This response causes your amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional processing, to release a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. Helps label memories that are highly emotional, making them more likely to stick vividly in your mind. But McNay describes the process as an inverted U: a little is fine; too much is bad, he says. Plus, if he adds caffeine or alcohol to the mix, it’s likely to push the curve even further to the right, which means his brain will have a harder time creating and saving new memories.
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It can be surprising and disappointing not to remember everything you think you need to remember about a big event, says Robert Kraft, a professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. “We pay a lot of money, we’re looking forward to it, and afterward, we want to revel in our memories of the concert,” he says. “But our expectations are too high. That is not memory, it is not a recorder”.
One of the biggest misconceptions many people have about memory, he says, is that they think forgetting is a deficiency. In reality, we are simply not designed to remember everything. Situations where we explicitly focus on remembering are usually limited to things like studying for a test or memorizing a presentation. “We didn’t set out to remember our lives, we set out to experience them,” says Kraft. “Not remembering is actually a tribute to being in the moment and enjoying it.”
Still, if you’re convinced you want to remember an important event better, a few strategies can help. The first is a purely mental approach, McNay says: You can try to achieve a “semi-meditative state,” perhaps by telling yourself to relax and be present. Or consider a more physical approach. Your brain monitors your body to figure out what emotional state you’re in, he explains. Running away from a bear, or yelling at a concert, tells it that you must be scared. If you commit to sitting still, in a relaxed state, on the other hand, you’ll send a message to your brain that there’s no need to get too excited. That can help encourage memory formation.
Kraft, for his part, prefers to take any pressure out of the equation and just focus on having a good time. He’s a fan of Swift, but like many of us, he couldn’t get tickets to the Eras Tour. If you’re in the same boat, make yourselves comfortable: “I’m sorry we’re both not going,” he says. “But we would have forgotten anyway.”
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