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What is a Memory Lapse?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A memory lapse is a momentary inability to remember a piece of information, such as how to do something, a word, a phone number, or someone's name. When the moment passes, the recollection returns. These brief hiccups in memory may last only a few seconds or a few minutes, and they can be very frustrating, as people may feel momentarily helpless until their memories kick in.

Researchers have theorized a number of possible causes for momentary failures in memory. One of the most commonly cited causes is age; as people grow older, their brains appear to go into decline, and memory lapses are one of the early signs of degeneration. For older adults, the lapses may grow longer and longer, and they may start to forget things entirely. Memory loss is also a contributor to dementia, a condition seen primarily in older adults.

High blood pressure has been suggested as another cause, in the wake of studies on patients taking high blood pressure medication or managing their blood pressure with diet. These patients demonstrated memory improvements and reported that they experienced fewer lapses with their blood pressure under control than they had experienced before.

So-called “pregnancy brain,” a phenomenon seen in pregnant women, may also lead to memory lapses. The mechanisms behind this phenomenon are not fully understood, but many pregnant women report cognitive interruptions during their pregnancies that lead them to forget things. The lapse can also occur with the use of certain medications that interfere with brain function.

Traumatic brain injuries are a serious cause of memory lapses. In the wake of a brain injury, someone may experience impaired memory in a variety of forms, with the a brief lapse being one of the least serious impairments. Brain injuries can also destroy short term memory or ruin long term memory, leading to amnesia. Many degenerative neurological diseases also damage the memory, with short lapses being an early sign of problems.

The hallmark of the memory lapse is the “tip of the tongue” experience, in which someone knows that he or she knows something, but can't bring it to mind. The tip of the tongue problem could be likened to opening a file drawer, finding a file with the right label, opening it, and finding nothing inside.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon271894 — On May 28, 2012

I am 15 and often times I can't remember what happened at school until about 5:00 in the evening. My dad will pick me up from school and ask "How was your day?" and I'll reply "I won't know until about 5." Sometimes I can't remember what I ate for breakfast or even if I ate breakfast. Other times I'll feed my fish, walk off somewhere, return to my room not five minutes later and wonder if I've fed my fish already or not. My teachers often complain that I don't turn all of my assignments in and I just tell them that I couldn't remember if we had homework or not, even if the teacher said it repeatedly and I remembered to write it down in my planner. And don't even get me started on how long it took me to return my library books… This happens every day.

Sometimes the only way I remember what happened at school is if it was a very exciting day (ex: we watched a movie in class).

Despite all this, I can easily remember my dreams even if they're as simple as my going to the grocery store.

By anon249748 — On Feb 22, 2012

I also have those tip of the tongue moments frequently, but I am 23, and it really bothers me, because it's rather embarrassing when a person I work with day after day stands in front of me and I can't remember her name. What I do is, I visualize a moment from the past when somebody said her name, and that's how I remember or else I'd be thinking about it forever. It's the same with very trivial words, like apple or drawer. I just can't say them.

By vignr6 — On Feb 16, 2012

I'm an IT professional. I do some normal things daily, like testing a module. In the recent past, I, at times, forget those testing procedures. I'm now getting the help of colleagues and it's embarrassing for me. Can anyone tell me the cause? Do I have any kind of mental or memory disease?

By shughes — On Sep 17, 2011

I forgot where the dentist was. I went in to the town center and started to feel panicky, and after 30 seconds it came back to me.

When I was at a party to celebrate my son's wedding, I went over to talk to a person I know from facebook. Later I asked my son if she was at the party, he said yes and brought her over, but I still didn't remember her -- very embarrassing. Later, after about an hour, it came back to me. She must have thought I was very odd and now I am concerned I have Alzheimer's. Anyone have any ideas as to why this happens?

By dill1971 — On Jul 27, 2010

@dega2010: I read a book by Dr. Arlene Taylor called Age-Proofing Your Memory. The book encourages readers to think of mind exercises as “fun education”. There are a lot of helpful tips in the book for stimulating the mind and ridding ourselves of memory loss.

I should note that the co-author of this book is Dr. Sharlet Briggs.

By SnowyWinter — On Jul 27, 2010

@dega2010: I have had those moments too. I get so aggravated when that happens. Sometimes I can’t remember the name of a song and then hours later, it pops in my head!

I did a little research on it and apparently, everyone has this happen from time to time. When it happens, the hippocampus (in the brain) will kick in and try to jog our memory with other associations. I know that as we age, we don’t remember things as well but I’m in my 30’s and I really don’t want to lose my memory!

Stress is one of the causes of short term memory loss. It is very important to try to reduce stressors in our lives.

By dega2010 — On Jul 27, 2010

I have those "tip of my tongue" moments quite frequently. Sometimes I will try to, for example, think of a movie title and I can see the movie in my head but the words won't come out.

Is that a short term memory loss?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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