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That ‘Brain Fog’ You’re Feeling Is Perfectly Normal03:08
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A lone woman walks in Boston Common, Friday, April 3, 2020, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A lone woman walks in Boston Common, Friday, April 3, 2020, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

A few weeks ago, I read a piece in The Atlantic about how Shakespeare wrote great works when quarantined due to the bubonic plague. On Twitter, I’ve seen cheery proclamations that sheltering-in-place will spark increased productivity and creativity.

These comments don’t resonate with my own experience, or with what I’m currently hearing from those in my practice as a clinical neuropsychologist. Like me, many are having trouble remembering whether they fed the dog this morning. Creating a masterpiece for the ages under the current circumstances seems laughable.

Most know the physiological responses triggered by the “fight or flight” response to acute stress: our hearts beat faster, breathing becomes shallower, beads of sweat appear on our skin.

The cognitive changes associated with acute stress may be overlooked but are no less significant. Our full attentional resources are deployed to transform our cognitive and sensory powers into laser beams that search for and analyze threats. Anything of lesser importance is suppressed from awareness. Time warps so that the present moment is elongated. Complex thinking skills, like decision-making or planning, temporarily go offline.

From an evolutionary perspective, this stress response is extremely effective when dealing with sudden and transient threats, like tigers and snakes that cross our paths. It becomes more problematic when we are coping with chronic stress, as we are right now.

Time warps so that the present moment is elongated. Complex thinking skills, like decision-making or planning, temporarily go offline.

There is no end in sight to the fear of an invisible virus that might cause us to become sick or to lose a loved one. Additional worries about money, jobs, food, and housing — basic essentials to our very well-being — may be constant companions. Every day seems to bring bad news and questions that cannot be answered.

In times of chronic stress, our brains habituate to the “fight or flight” response. Our hearts may not race all of the time, and we may not notice that our muscles are tight or that sleep has become more elusive. Our awareness of worries may fade, but they continue to capture our attentional resources, making it harder to concentrate and fully observe our environment. At the same time, we may be more distractible, jumping from one thing to the next, unknowingly searching for signs of threat. Some incoming information will be missed, creating little holes in our everyday memory. We may make errors in decision-making or become stuck in old thought patterns. Brain fog creeps in quietly and insidiously.

Under normal circumstances, we might be able to compensate by falling back into automatic patterns of behavior or reaching out to those who are able to offer support. Yet in the current crisis, well-established routines have been completely upended and we are more isolated from our friends and family, many of whom are also struggling. We are also juggling more and new responsibilities, such as working remotely while managing virtual learning for our children. Add in a few sleepless nights and it is easy to understand why we might need reminders for things that we once recalled with ease; let alone why we can’t get beyond writing the first sentence of the next great novel.

Frustrating as it may be, brain fog may actually be protective. It is a sign that what we are experiencing is not normal. It forces the things that are less important into obscurity, so that we can focus on what is most important, like our safety and that of our loved ones. It keeps us from taking on too much or from trying to move too fast in uncertain times. It allows for cognitive resources to be held in reserve so that capacity can be quickly deployed to learn new and adaptive skills.

Frustrating as it may be, brain fog may actually be protective. It is a sign that what we are experiencing is not normal.

The fog also makes space for us to process emotions that often follow fear. A friend recently lamented that in the past few weeks, she has had trouble catching up on work after her kids went to sleep. When it was finally quiet, she could “zone out and cry,” reflecting on her daily experience and how strange things have become.

Everything is familiar and yet also very different. We have all had losses and missed experiences or opportunities. There is an emerging sense that things are not going to “return to normal” anytime soon, if ever. The fog forces our hands and minds to be still so that fear, grief and sadness may visit.

Making time and space for these emotions is an act of profound kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others. It is likely to do as much to improve your productivity than any other general advice about how to structure your day or develop a new routine. That is not to say that stress management techniques and organizational strategies won’t help — they are crucial throughout the day when we try to keep all the balls in the air.

True creativity and bursts of productivity are, however, likely to be fleeting while existential threats persist. Rest assured, when the pandemic recedes, your creative and cognitive powers will still be there, ready and waiting to be unleashed. Until then, we must be patient and allow our active minds some rest.

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This segment aired on May 5, 2020.

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Molly Colvin Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Molly Colvin, PhD ABPP is a developmental neuropsychologist, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital, and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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