Brain fog and blurry thinking:  How to tackle pandemic memory loss 

Repeated lockdowns, where weeks and months merged into each other, have taken a toll on our ability to recall. But there are ways to move beyond it, say the experts
Brain fog and blurry thinking:  How to tackle pandemic memory loss 

The pandemic has resulted in a surge of fuzzy memories and hazy recollections.
Picture: iStock 

If you have found yourself forgetting birthdays, films you have watched or names of faces, then you are not alone. Psychologists say we are emerging from two years of blur into a brain fog and that successive lockdowns when days bled into weeks and time had so few boundaries that everything felt the same, are taking their toll. There were no diary dates and no birthday celebrations, the usual reference points that are crucial for memories to be cemented in our minds. The result? We find ourselves in a pandemic memory hole.

With few Christmas gatherings, annual holidays, birthday parties or celebrations such as weddings and christenings to define each passing 12 months, the recent past may seem shuffled and disordered. Quarantines and lockdowns meant there were no boundary date markers, or clear chapter breaks - which psychologists call ‘pattern separation' - in our minds. What we are left with is a sense of jumbled and confusing chronology.

Dr Sabina Brennan, a neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin and author of Beating Brain Fog, says the pandemic has resulted in a surge of fuzzy memories and hazy recollections. “A lot of people are experiencing foggy thinking,” she says. “The classic signs are not thinking straight or being unable to concentrate, struggling to remember things you did even fairly recently.”

There’s scientific proof of it happening too. Last year, a study conducted at the University Federico II in Naples looked at the effects of ‘covid confinement’ during lockdowns on 150 female first-year students. Most of the participants experienced some anxiety due to lack of social interaction and most believed their cognitive processes had also suffered. 

Results in the Journal of Clinical Medicine  showed a decrease in working memory and prospective memory (remembering to perform a planned action in the future). Performance in what the research team called ‘time-based intentions’, such as remembering to call the doctor for a prescription at a specified time, was particularly poor. And they said a dearth of “external cues” that prompt us to do something – such as walking past a doctor’s surgery, that might trigger a reminder that we need to call the surgery – were likely to blame.

It’s not just our ability to remember events and dates that has been dulled. If you’ve met a work colleague in person and been unable to recall their name, it’s could be down to covid memory blur.

Mask wearing hasn’t helped us to remember faces either. Psychologists from Ariel University in Israel assessed the impact of mask-wearing and found it was likely to “interfere with normal speed and accuracy” of recognising and remembering people. Writing in the journal Frontiers In Psychology, they concluded that “masks hinder specific features” that we need to recall faces.

Coronavirus may also have affected our cognitive function. In a recent paper, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences have found if you have had Covid even mildly with no apparent long-term side effects you might still experience brain fog for up to nine months afterwards.

For their trial, published in the journal Brain Communications [], they asked participants to complete brain games that tested their memory and cognitive ability. Results showed that while the Covid group performed well in most of the cognitive assessments, their scores for episodic memory - recalling personal experiences, including what happened where and when - were significantly worse for up to six months after infection. They also displayed a greater decline in the ability to sustain attention over time than uninfected individuals.

“What’s surprising is that although our Covid-19 survivors did not feel any more symptomatic at the time of testing, they showed degraded attention and memory,” says Dr Sijia Zhao a researcher in Oxford’s department of experimental psychology and one of the authors. “Our findings reveal that people can experience some chronic cognitive consequences for months.”

Some memory blurring is natural – and forgetting parts of pandemic life is no bad thing. Psychologists say the mind has an ability to compress events we don’t need – or want – to remember. But, there are also ways to revive our ability to think clearly and remember.

Five ways to improve your memory

1. Write things down: Using a paper diary or journal to record and plan events helps to cement them in our memory bank. “Writing is one of the best ways to help us to process and remember things,” says Jennifer Wild, an Oxford University psychologist and author of Be Extraordinary.

2. Rehearse experiences in your mind: “Try to actively remember even small events like having coffee with friends,” says Wild. “Go over in your mind what you said and where you were to crystalise the memory.”

3. Discuss plans: Make plans to go on holiday or out for a meal and then talk about them to friends and family. “Discuss the intricate details such as time and venue, even how much it cost,” Wild says. “Studies have shown that the language used to describe plans can really help you to remember them and even replacing a ‘dry’ word with a ‘juicier’ one in your mind can help.” So when describing a walk to a friend, for example, say it was “brisk and energising” rather than “short”.

4. Update your memories regularly: As you start to recall recent events, make sure you update them as they pop into your mind. Thinking about weather, environment and what you were wearing helps to encode the memory. “Add new information as you think about them,” Wild says. “If you’re trying to remember something at work, add evidence and facts to polish up the memory.”

5. Exercise for at least 20 minutes daily: Exercise has a profound effect on our ability to remember. The main benefits come within the first 20 minutes when exercise helps our muscles to clear out harmful chemicals that may impair memory. One study in the USA found that people who exercised for a month preceding - and on the day - of taking memory tests performed significantly better than those who had sat around for the month or those who had exercised for the month but not on the day of the tests.

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