What is brain fog anyway?

Brain fog has been on people’s minds in more ways than one during the pandemic and after the recent lockdownversary. Whether you’re struggling to concentrate in meetings, finding creative thinking nearly impossible, or you’ve lost interest in cracking into that latest bestseller, brain fog has become more common amongst the population. 

This week, brain fog was officially added to the Collins Dictionary, defined as a “usually temporary inability to concentrate and think clearly”. You might find you’re more forgetful than usual. Did you turn the oven off? Did you definitely lock the front door before bed? Did you wander into another room and totally forget why you’re there for the millionth time today?

I for one recently noticed I’ve become even worse at recalling names, which makes Zoom meetings with clearly labelled tiny faces particularly helpful. It seems there are the occasional upsides of a virtual world, though research suggests that the isolation of COVID-19 is what is contributing to this universal feeling of general confusion. 

Though brain fog might feel like a modern complaint that goes hand in hand with the pandemic and our more contracted lives, the first cited usage of the term goes back as far as 1853, where it appeared in a Pennsylvanian newspaper. It also pops up in scientific studies in the 1990s, in the context of people describing their experience of chronic fatigue. People suffering from stress, lack of sleep, increased anxiety or depression, and – more recently – long Covid all report brain fog on a clinical level, but it’s also seeping into wider public consciousness.

Some very brainy neuroscientists have suggested that the reason we’re all suffering from the fogginess is because, for many of us, every day is virtually the same. A Groundhog Day of wake up, make your lockdown coffee of choice, log on from your living room, and switch off 8 hours later to prepare for another evening of Netflix. There’s a reason lockdown was the Collins Word of the Year in 2020.

But don’t worry too much, Jon Simons of the University of Cambridge assured readers in The Guardian last week that what we’re experiencing is a completely normal reaction to the trauma of the last 12 months. We’re social creatures after all, and being separated from our friends, our family and the pub is difficult for us to cope with. Even if a reprieve from the office and its accompanying £5 Pret lunch has made you and your bank account happier.

Of course, people have come together on social media to make sense of this global feeling. On TikTok, there are light-hearted videos of people walking into rooms to the soundtrack of Earth, Wind & Fire’s September as they struggle to remember basic everyday tasks such as locking the car.

On Twitter, people share their experiences of how the pandemic has made it harder for them to focus, particularly with so many people working from home. I’ll save you the Google search (because we all know Googling random symptoms ends one way), and share the advice that some of the best ways to beat it are to get outside more if you can, do more exercise and try to get a good night’s sleep.

As the vaccine roll-out continues and we all start dreaming of getting back to the ‘new new normal’, there’s a hope that the brain fog may lift. Until then, my cat will continue to exploit the situation by persuading me she definitely didn’t get dinner. At least our furry friends continue to see the silver lining.

By Rachel Quin
Rachel Quin is a freelance marketer and copywriter with a love of language, books and cats.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.


Other Articles

Words matter: thoughts on language and Black History Month

The work of historians is increasingly emphasising something that many in the Black community have known for a long time: the profound influence of Africa and the Caribbean on British culture. Last month, I began a PhD and my research is focused on mahogany in English country houses. Chippendale cabinets… Read More

Blah-blah-blah… 6 unusual words when you’re lost for words

The climate emergency continues to be an urgent challenge for the planet, with a whole wave of new words entering the dictionary to describe its impact and influence, from single-use and plogging to climate strike. Last week, Greta… Read More

Celebrate National Poetry Day

This year’s annual National Poetry Day, the thirty-eighth, falls on Thursday 7 October. National Poetry Day (NPD) was founded in 1994 by an arts charity – the Forward Arts Foundation – and has gone from strength to strength, boosting, inter alia, sales of poetry: the graph… Read More