There’s a Reason You Have Brain Fog

As restrictions ease and stimulation returns, your capacity will bounce back

Early last summer, after stringent shutdown orders were lifted and, cautiously, friends began gathering in outdoor environs, the act of stringing a coherent sentence together was a personal struggle. The verbal equivalent of sea legs, my words felt wobbly and clumsy, and in group settings, I found it easier to observe in silence than contribute in any meaningful way.

Beyond conversation skills, social isolation also dulled many of my other cognitive capacities. My memory wasn’t so hot and conjuring creative or critical thoughts was nearly impossible — which isn’t great when your job requires you to have critical and/or creative thoughts. Throughout the cold and lonely pandemic winter, everyday tasks like writing emails and remembering to eat certain foods before they rotted in my fridge were nearly impossible. They either took five times as long to perform or I’d forget them completely. I felt like my brain was irreparably broken.

An experience felt widely by others lucky enough to sequester themselves while working from home, the loss of any sort of deftness, wit, or mental clarity seemed to take hold. In March, Ellen Cushing of The Atlantic called this feeling “the fog of the late pandemic.” Far enough from the start of the pandemic that we can no longer remember what it was like to be normal, our brains are now adapting to a new life of limited stimulation.

The likely culprit of our lagging brains is social isolation, according to a new study. Researchers from Scotland sought to measure the effects of social isolation on cognitive function — things like memory, perceptual ability, and executive function — during the country’s spring lockdown, from May to June 2020. At five points over 13 weeks, participants between the ages of 18 and 72 were asked to complete online tasks measuring attention, memory, decision-making, time-estimation, and learning.

As lockdown restrictions eased in the real world and mood improved, participants performed the tasks more efficiently, which suggested: “that even relatively short‐term social isolation — specifically, reduced social contact with those outside the household — has a negative impact on cognitive abilities/executive functions.”

But the more we interact with others, our memory and our ability to pay attention rebounds — and quickly. Each week, the study’s participants performed the task a little better as they were able to meet with people outside of their household, which bodes well for our ability to get through our workdays without forgetting what it was we were supposed to be doing. “Our findings offer concrete proof that lockdown makes us all a little more distracted, sluggish, and fatigued — cognitive problems that may be affecting our performance at work and our social interactions outside of it,” the researchers wrote.

The brain is a muscle we need to train. Called neuroplasticity, our brains have the ability to learn and grow as we age. Constantly challenging our brains with novel and complicated activities and experiences help keep our cognitive skills strong. Over the last year, my brain has gotten lazy. In the name of self-preservation during a crisis, I rarely challenged myself mentally and didn’t pick up any new hobbies or skills. It should come as no shock that I now find the basic functions of my job grueling.

Luckily, a change of pace can quickly spark a brain back into action. A weekend picnic, a little road trip, a wine and paint class with friends all do their part to bring it back to life. Little by little, incorporating these experiences into my schedule should awaken my brain from its yearlong slumber. Now, if only I could remember to follow through.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store