Fighting Through Brain Fog In Search of Clarity


As we return to normal instruction and testing, our brains are anything but. (Courtesy of Pia Fischetti)

Midterm season: It is a time of stress, studying and maybe even crying in the library. For the first time since I came to Fordham (in the midst of the pandemic), all of my professors have decided to forgo administering online midterm exams and are returning to in-class examinations. Much to my dismay, this shift back to in-person examination didn’t come with any caveats, like open-note components to help lessen the blow. 

As I sat down to study for my midterm exams in the library this week, I felt like I was back in high school studying for a big exam, with one major difference: I felt a lack of focus coupled with an overwhelming feeling that I didn’t truly know how to study at all. 

I couldn’t pinpoint what the problem was; back in high school, I used to be better at studying. A reading assignment that would’ve taken me thirty minutes to complete in high school was now taking me an hour to complete. However, after doing a quick online search, I was able to see that it’s not just me who is suffering from problems of brain fog and a shortened attention span; many people — students and professionals alike — are suffering from a lack of focus as they return to a sense of normalcy. 

Yet, as we return to normal course instruction and testing, our brains are anything but. 

Our brains have been through a myriad of simultaneously occurring stressors; we’ve dealt with the stress of the pandemic, the fear of contracting COVID-19, social isolation from friends and family and disruptions to our daily routines. 

The impact that these changes can have on the brain is profound, especially considering the brain’s usual resilience. The brain is highly adaptable; it’s good at learning new things to adapt to a new situation, and forgetting things that are no longer being used or prioritized. During the pandemic, when classes and tests were remote and we were socially isolated from each other, it makes sense that the brain discarded prior key information. 

Now, as we return to in-person instruction and examinations, our brains have forgotten how to study for an in-person exam, interact with our peers and actively engage in class. As a neuroscientist at UC Irvine said, “We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment.” 

There’s already new studies and research coming out showing the effects that the pandemic has had on the brain. Findgins from a study presented by Massachusetts General Hospital found that individuals, even those who haven’t been infected with COVID-19, have shown elevated brain markers for neuroinflammation, something that has been associated with fatigue, brain fog and other mental health issues. 

Newly acquired brain fog is frustrating and annoying, especially when we can look back at times when we could do all of our daily tasks with ease. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to make the brain fog a little less insufferable. 

Firstly, physical activity is incredibly important on all fronts. It can help increase our focus, but also helps with neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to adapt to change and new environments. Something as simple as a 30 minute walk around campus or a visit to the gym is enough to help clear away some of the fog. 

Secondly, the positive effects of just five minutes of meditation can be incredibly helpful for our brains and our stress. Mindfulness can ease stress and enhance cognitive processes like memory retrieval. By focusing our attention on our breathing or a specific object, we can help counter the feeling of being overwhelmed and help train our brain’s attention span. 

Finally, forming a healthy sleep routine ensures that you are giving your body and brain time to heal and rest. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation or irregular sleeping habits can slow down the brain’s ability to function. From personal experience, I know I feel more alert and focused when I’ve slept for seven hours as opposed to when I only sleep for three or four hours. 

There is reason to be optimistic that brain fog and lack of focus will eventually fade. As we witnessed during the pandemic, our brains can shift and adapt to situations. If they adapted to the situation of the pandemic, then they can once again adapt to our return to semi-normalcy, and that includes in-person instruction and exams. In the meantime, there are things we can do to lessen the frustration and stress and hopefully clear some of the fog this midterm season. 

Samantha Scott, FCRH ’24, is an international political economy and political science major from Columbus, Ohio.