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.