Still Alice author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova unpacks what's behind our pandemic brain fog.

By Lisa Genova
Mar 16, 2021 @ 9:00 am
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Lisa Genova illustration
Credit: Illustration by Shout

Not long ago, I was filling out an online registration form for my son, and I couldn't remember his age. Was he 12 or 13? Stumped, I resorted to doing the math. Born in December 2007; it's November 2020: 20 minus 7, so he's 12, turning 13. What the heck just happened? I was a couple of weeks away from turning 50. The skin on my face definitely showed signs of aging. Had my brain started wrinkling and sagging too? No longer young, had I reached a point in life where I'd now routinely experience senior moments? My grandmother had Alzheimer's disease. Was this cognitive hiccup a symptom of dementia? Did I just have a stroke? Had my previously reliable memory suddenly turned old, feeble, damaged, or diseased?

Thankfully, before I committed to a panic-stricken free fall down this terrifyingly dark rabbit hole, the neuroscientist in me stepped in like a superhero: "Hold on there, sister. You don't have Alzheimer's. You didn't have a stroke. And even at 50, you're still young(ish). You are stressed." And stress can bring human memory to its knees.

While a certain amount of temporary stress can facilitate the formation of new memories, it often jams up our ability to retrieve memories that we've already stored. This is what happens if you've ever choked on an exam you studied for. You knew the material cold, but feeling too much pressure caused you to draw a blank. Your brain couldn't retrieve what it knew.

I forgot my son's age the day before the presidential election. That singular stressor — worrying over the fate of our country — was likely significant enough to disrupt my brain's ability to fetch this simple memory. But something more insidious was also going on. This was 2020, and like most of us, I'd been overwhelmed with chronic, unrelenting stress since the Ides of March. For memory, that's disastrous.

A million years ago, stress largely came from external forces. If you noticed a predator or an enemy about to attack you, your brain and body released stress hormones, allowing you to fight or flee. In 2020 we weren't running from lions, tigers, and bears, but because we can imagine and worry, we may have felt as if we'd been running for our lives. Psychological stress can be caused by a perceived lack of certainty, control, or social connection. Sound familiar? I check all three boxes. Our thoughts can be our most dangerous predators.

The human physiological response to stress is meant to be a temporary quick-on/quick-off state that allows us to react to an immediate threat or challenge. And this isn't bad for us. We need this response to function normally every day — to give a Zoom presentation, to hit the brakes when the car in front of us unexpectedly stops, and even to pry ourselves out of bed in the morning (another day of online learning for your three kids).

But what if whatever is stressing you out — the pandemic, the political divide, racial injustice, climate change — doesn't end? Many of our worried, terrifying what-if thoughts have been relentless for more than a year. When this happens, the shutoff valve to the stress response can essentially break. We stay flooded with stress hormones, and our brains are now stuck in a sustained runaway-train state of fight or flight.

This is bad for memory. You'll have trouble thinking clearly, forming new memories, and retrieving old ones. Again, sound familiar? But we can't control the distribution of vaccines, the latest COVID mutation, politics, or the next natural disaster. So what can we do? Are we doomed to forgetting where we put our phone, why we walked into the kitchen, what our spouse just said, and how old our son is?

While we can't extricate ourselves from the stressful world we live in, we can dramatically influence our brain's response to it. Yoga, meditation, and exercise have been shown to reduce chronically elevated stress hormones and protect against stress-induced amnesia. The next time you can't remember a name, forget to return an email, or struggle to come up with the age of your middle child, take a deep breath. Fretting about forgetting can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Forgetting happens. If you stress about it, it will happen even more.

Genova's latest book, Remember, is out on March 23.

For more stories like this, pick up the April 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Mar. 19th.