How lockdown is leading to endemic levels of ‘brain fog’

Our brains come alive in the presence of others. Incarceration is having a negative impact on our grey matter. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

Saturday, 17th April 2021, 10:40 am
Head in the clouds: is lockdown leading to cognitive decline en masse?

Lockdown has kept many of us on a hamster wheel of beige days without distinction, change of scene or cast, trips out or stimulating conversation with our usual range of social contacts. And the results, say experts, are an increasing predominance of ‘brain fog’, cognitive decline and memory deficiencies.

London-based psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, author of the self-help book How to Live, What to Do, notes how where once patients came into his consulting room to lie down on the couch and chat about the weather, the weirdos on the tube, the traffic or the variegated politics of office life, they now appear on his computer screen and tell him, most prevalently, about the dreaded descent of brain fog on their once lucid, razor-sharp minds. That hazy, sluggish feeling of not being able to remember events with precision and in technicolour detail is becoming recurrent, cognition slowed under lockdown to levels of much retarded velocity than we were used to pre-Covid when being busy interacting in real time and physical space with others kept our grey matter functioning at optimum levels.

Cohen says his patients talk of feeling unable to concentrate in meetings, to read purposefully or follow elaborately plotted soap operas, detective series and movies. Our minds are blurred and our focused attention compromised.

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“There’s this sense of debilitation, of losing ordinary facility with everyday life; a forgetfulness and a kind of de-skilling,” says Cohen.

Although restrictions are now easing across the UK, with greater freedom to circulate and socialise, he says lockdown for many of us has been “a contraction of life, and an almost parallel contraction of mental capacity”.

For Cohen, the phenomenon of brain fog is an experience of one of the most disturbing aspects of the unconscious. He talks of Freud’s theory of drives – the idea that we have one force inside us that propels us towards life; another that pulls us towards death. The life drive, Cohen explains, impels us to create, make connections with others, seek “the expansion of life”. The death drive, by contrast, urges “a kind of contraction. It’s a move away from life and into a kind of stasis”. Lockdown – while paradoxically necessary to preserve life – is like the death drive made manifest as a daily lifestyle. With brain fog, he says, we are seeing “an atrophy of liveliness. People are finding themselves to be more sluggish, that their physical and mental weight is somehow heavier, it’s hard to carry around – to drag.” We could understand brain fog as an encounter with our death drive – with the part of us which, in Cohen’s words, is “going in the opposite direction of awareness and sparkiness, and in the direction of inanimacy and shutting down”.

This dulled, purposeless state of mind - say as when you enter a room or go upstairs only to entirely forget what you were looking for, almost always glasses that end up being propped on your forehead - is boring, a nuisance, frustrating, and produces a sense that our perceptions are blunted and clumsy in tandem with our increased physical inactivity.

But brain fog is arguably, says cognitive neuroscience, a completely apposite reaction to this quite traumatic experience we’ve had collectively over the past 12 months.

Catherine Loveday, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster, calls brain fog poor “cognitive function”; it can be said to cover “everything from our memory, our attention and our ability to problem-solve to our capacity to be creative. Because I’m a memory scientist, so many people are telling me their memory is really poor,” she says. She knows of only two studies exploring the phenomenon as related to lockdown: one from Italy, in which participants subjectively reported these sorts of problems with attention, time perception and organisation; another in Scotland which objectively measured participants’ cognitive function across a range of tasks at particular times during the first lockdown and into the summer. Results showed that people performed worse when lockdown started, but improved as restrictions loosened.

One factor which could be related to cognitive impairment during lockdown is the fact that everything is so samey; our brains are stimulated by the new and the different, and without novelty the mind can stultify.

Loveday explains: “From the minute we’re born – in fact, from before we’re born – when there is a new stimulus, a baby will turn its head towards it. And if as adults we are watching a boring lecture and someone walks into the room, it will stir our brain back into action. We have effectively evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes, but to pay particular attention when things do change,” she says. Loveday suggests that if we can attend a work meeting by phone while walking in a park, we might find we are better able to concentrate, thanks to the changing scenery and the exercise. She also suggests spending time in different rooms at home – or if you only have one room, try changing what the room looks like.

The blending of one day into the next with no commute, no change of scene, could also have an important impact on the way the brain processes memories. Experiences under lockdown lack “distinctiveness” – a crucial factor in “pattern separation”. This process allows individual memories to be successfully encoded, so we can distinguish one memory from another and retrieve them with precision. The fuggy, confused sensation that many of us will recognise, of not being able to remember whether something happened last week or last month, may well be with us for a while,

Perhaps one of the most important features of this period of endemic brain fog has been the reduced social interaction we have had to put up with. It’s not the same as the natural social interaction that we would have. Our brains wake up in the presence of other people – being with others is stimulating. Neuroscientists are investigating the science of how levels of social interaction, among other factors, have affected memory function in lockdown. Loveday also wonders if our alternative to face-to-face communication – platforms such as Zoom – could have an impact on concentration and attention.

Carmine Pariante, professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, is also intrigued by the brain fog phenomenon. “It’s a common experience, but it’s very complex,” he says. “I think it is the cognitive equivalent of feeling emotionally distressed; it’s almost the way the brain expresses sadness, beyond the emotion.”

Rather than push through this fog to force ourselves to focus and concentrate, experts argue it is perhaps instead a signal we should pay heed to, a question of body and brain telling us that we are pushing things too hard in the here and now. Perhaps it is an indicator we need time out to avoid emotional suffering and burnout. And indeed, perhaps we are having problems with our thinking because the truth of the Covid experience, and lockdown in itself, rising fatalities and fear of infection for many of us, is simply unthinkable.

For most of us, brain fog will likely be a temporary state, and will clear as we begin to live more varied lives. But it’s possible that for some people – particularly older adults – that where there is natural neurological decline, it will be accelerated. The best defence is having a rich and varied social life, filled with intellectual stimulation, novelty and satisfying relationships, to keep the brain stimulated.

So get out into the world, have as rich and varied experiences and interactions as you can within the restrictions. The more we do, the descending clouds of brain fog should lift, and cognition as normal should hopefully resume as our lifestyles return to business as usual.