This is an email from Inside Your Head 🧠, a newsletter by Elemental.

Why Your Brain Is So Foggy

Image: Ponomariova_Maria/Getty Images

Welcome to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forward to your brainiest friend and tell them to subscribe here.

Before I was a science journalist, I was a scientist researching the brain. My fascination with our most complicated organ was sparked during a high school psychology class, and I went on to study psychology and neuroscience in college and graduate school.

I started blogging about the brain while I was doing my PhD on the neurobiology of drug addiction, and by the time I graduated, I realized that I had more fun writing about other people’s research than doing my own. Flash forward seven years, and it’s still my favorite subject to report on, so I was delighted when my editors at Elemental asked me to start a weekly newsletter that attempts to explain our modern lives through our ancient brains.

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The gist of the newsletter: Sometimes we act and feel in ways that surprise ourselves, but if we can understand what’s going on in our heads — the neurons and hormones and cognitive biases that cause us to behave the way we do — we can start to understand ourselves and our world a little better. Sounds like a cool topic, right? If only I could get my pandemic brain to focus on it...

I don’t know about you, but since the start of the pandemic it feels like my neurons have been replaced by pipe cleaners. So even though I was excited to write this newsletter, I was feeling a little sluggish and uninspired. Which got me thinking, what exactly is happening in your head when you’re feeling brain dead?

  • Scientific research on brain fog is pretty scant because it’s not technically a clinical condition. The characteristic symptoms — fatigue, difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, and general slowness — can be caused by chronic illnesses, nutrient deficiencies, and medication side effects. But stress and sleep deprivation (check and check) can also cause these symptoms.
  • Acute stress is a valuable signal to the body to pay attention and be prepared to act. The neurochemicals cortisol and adrenaline rise, placing you in the “fight or flight” mindset and body state. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate all go up, which, when you’re facing a snake or have to run to catch a nearly-missed flight, can be lifesaving (literally or figuratively). But when the situation doesn’t resolve — say, an unending, ineptly handled, deadly pandemic, for example — chronic stress starts to take its toll.
  • The technical term is allostatic load, first defined by neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen in 1993 as “the cost of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response resulting from repeated or chronic environmental challenge that an individual reacts to as being particularly stressful.” Sounds about right.
  • In the brain, all of that pent up cortisol and adrenaline can make it hard to focus on anything besides the perceived threat, leaving you feeling distracted and unable to concentrate. These neurochemicals also make it difficult to sleep, and sleep deprivation disrupts brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other, resulting in memory lapses and slower reaction times. Ever feel your eyes glaze over while reading? One study showed that lack of sleep especially impairs activity in the visual area of the brain (you might need to read that sentence again).
  • Long term, stress can cause your brain to rewire, with more activity in the amygdala — the brain’s fear center — and less in the prefrontal cortex, the hub for planning and self-control. Chronic stress can even kill cells in the hippocampus, an area integral for both memory and emotion, raising the risk for dementia and depression long term. Together, these changes hinder your ability to concentrate, think clearly, and control your emotions.

These changes in the brain are obviously not ideal, so you want to try and lower your stress levels, stat. One relaxation technique that conveniently doubles as a sleep aid is the meditative body scan. Psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and meditation expert Dr. Jud Brewer, who wrote about the technique for Elemental, described the scan better than I can, so I’ll borrow his words (you can also listen to his guided meditation here).

Bring your awareness to the physical sensations of the toes in your left foot. If you can’t feel anything, wiggle your toes for a moment, then notice what you feel. Are they warm or cold? Moist or dry? Simply be curious about what your toes feel like right now. Then invite your awareness to the bottom of your left foot and notice what it feels like.

Repeat this practice by moving your awareness through your body as you scan up your left and then right leg, and through your entire body. You can do this in about 10 minutes, or longer if you’d like.

Brewer says, “The body scan works because you’re not trying to force your mind not to think or your body to calm down — which you can’t do anyway — but instead, it naturally draws your attention and energy away from your worry thinking, and grounds you in your body.” I feel better already.

Although there’s not a lot of academic research on the fuzzy-headed kind of brain dead, there are some fascinating studies about how scientists are able to determine whether people who are unconscious are really, technically brain dead depending on whether they’re still able to hear and process language. In an ingenious study from 2006, scientists scanned the brain of a woman in a vegetative state while asking her to first imagine she was playing tennis and then to visualize herself navigating around her home. The scientists saw brain areas corresponding to physical movement or spatial processing light up, respectively, indicating the woman heard the scientists and mentally performed the tasks. The researchers have gone on to use this test to communicate with people in comas, getting them to think “tennis” to answer yes to questions and “house” to answer no.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back with another look inside your head next Tuesday. In the meantime, let me know how your pandemic brain is faring at dsmith@medium.com or @smithdanag.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental