Cog fog: it’s not stupidity!

Mon 19 December 2022

Craig Watson

Craig Watson from Falkirk in Scotland lives with primary progressive MS. He compares the ‘cog fog’ he experiences to something you may remember if you used a computer in the 1990s.

Since my MS diagnosis a few years ago, it’s obvious how much my mobility, eyesight and voice have degenerated. You’ll find me wearing glasses with a frosted lens, not talking too much, and in a wheelchair.

But what's not so noticeable is the increase in cognitive fogginess or, to you and me, ‘cog fog’. Cog fog is classed as an invisible symptom and can appear in many different ways.

Read more about MS symptoms and signs

Those of us of a certain vintage will remember that spinning egg timer thing we got in Windows 3.11 or Windows 95. It'd appear when we had too many programs open and then tried to play Minesweeper. It popped up and there wasn't a lot we could do about it.

It just appears

Cog fog is the same. Try to do too much and the spinning egg timer pops up in your brain. It can be struggling for a word, forgetting what 22 divided by 7 is, or trying to remember someone’s name.

When we fall, that thing we tend to land on is called ‘the floor’, not ‘that thing we walk on inside the house’. 22 divided by 7 is 3.14 or pi. That person you're sure you know is Dave who was in your second-year maths class at school 40 years ago!

Fatigue plays a part in cog fog because when we get more tired our brains get slower. That happens in folk without MS as well, it’s just more noticeable in us. So you might notice that as the day progresses you feel that the clouds have descended and you're fogged in.

Coping with MS cog fog

Trying to take part in a frivolous conversation in a noisy bar, or trying to be smart and use big words, are some of the things that trigger my own cog fog and cause the spinning egg timer to appear. How do I cope? Well when it appears I chose one of the following solutions:

  1. Wait. Not a strong point of mine so it’s always less than patiently. I don’t go and do something else as that would only make matters worse. So I do nothing.
  2. Warm reset. I give myself the three finger salute of ctrl+alt+delete, otherwise known as rest+hydrate+nap.
  3. Cold reset. I switch off and back on again (I go to my bed or, more correctly, I'm sent to my bed!)

For me, option two tends to work the best, but for you it may be different.

Underwear or Amazon?

Think of your brain like a full filing cabinet, not the like the supercomputer that it is. To get something in the filing cabinet it has to be important, and something else has to come out. So while wearing white underwear with your white trousers is important, it’s not getting in the filing cabinet! Remembering to pay £7.99 to Amazon is more important.

Find your own limits and test them: if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. Remember they’re your limits, no one else’s. Find a way to cope. You won’t be cured, but you can cope and you will have a better life.

The most important thing is that you and others around you know that cog fog can be a symptom of this condition, and you aren’t stupid! Don’t let the spinning egg timer appear, keep it at bay and know your limits.

Read about memory and thinking problems in MS