Of Course Freud Had a Word For It

I came across this article today in the Guardian, entitled Brain fog: how trauma, uncertainty and isolation have affected our minds and memory and aside from the newspaper’s annoying house style that eschews capitalization seemingly at random, it offered a lightbulb moment. I urge people to read it, especially if they are wondering what has changed this year, beyond the obvious exhortations of ‘everything!’ and ‘nothing!’. It remains to be seen whether this pandemic, which is ongoing, will be a teaching moment, or a learning ‘pivot point’ as the influencers would have it. But the brain fog that so many are experiencing is poignantly and accurately described in the article.

For Cohen, the phenomenon of brain fog is an experience of one of the most disturbing aspects of the unconscious. He talks of Freud’s theory of drives – the idea that we have one force inside us that propels us towards life; another that pulls us towards death. The life drive, Cohen explains, impels us to create, make connections with others, seek “the expansion of life”. The death drive, by contrast, urges “a kind of contraction. It’s a move away from life and into a kind of stasis or entropy”. Lockdown – which, paradoxically, has done so much to preserve life – is like the death drive made lifestyle. With brain fog, he says, we are seeing “an atrophy of liveliness. People are finding themselves to be more sluggish, that their physical and mental weight is somehow heavier, it’s hard to carry around – to drag.” Freud has a word for this: trägheit – translated as a “sluggishness”, but which Cohen says literally translates as “draggyness”. We could understand brain fog as an encounter with our death drive – with the part of us which, in Cohen’s words, is “going in the opposite direction of awareness and sparkiness, and in the direction of inanimacy and shutting down”.

Moya Sarner, The Guardian, 14/4/21

Lockdown has affected different people in different ways but this confrontation (in many ways) with the death drive offers a way to conceptualize feelings that many of us have had and are continuing to wrestle with. Sarner goes on to talk about the work of Wilfred Bion and his states of ‘K’ and ‘-K’ and how it offers us a way to understand people’s reactions, too.

The uncertainty, the deaths, the trauma, the precarity; perhaps we have unconsciously chosen to live in the misty, murky brain fog of –K rather than to face, to suffer, the true pain and horror of our situation. Perhaps we are having problems with our thinking because the truth of the experience, for many of us, is simply unthinkable.


How is it possible to conceptualize what’s happened? Or rationalize it? In change situations, it is naturally to turn away from that change, or to pretend it isn’t happening if it is uncomfortable or if it is threatening to the emotional and intellectual statutes of an individual or organization. This reality we are living through is the biggest of all change situations, and exploring your reaction to it in an honest and intellectually rigorous way is absolutely key to engendering an appropriate ongoing response. I myself speak as someone who clearly has work to do in this respect. Do read the article.

Published by gurdeepmattu

I’m an author and publisher. I live and work in London and am the author of “Sons and Fascination” (2011, Paperbooks). It's available here: http://amzn.to/eaTVCx

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