Are mental blanks normal?
July 21, 2005 10:17 PM   Subscribe

Are mental blanks normal?

Sometimes I might be looking at a photo of a family member or my girlfriend and suddenly feel like I don't know that person, feel no emotional attachment to them, and forget almost everything about them. Within half a minute, it all comes back. When I was a teenager the same thing happened with the alphabet and numbers (both verbally and visually) where, perhaps, I could say H but not know how it would be written, and on other times vice versa. And on quite rare occasion (few times a year?), it also happens when I look at myself in the mirror, and it takes several seconds to remember who I am.

I don't feel this is a medical question, as such, but want to know if this is something "everyone has". I suspect it is. Do you have mental blanks like this? They cause me no problems, so I'm interested to learn more.
posted by wackybrit to Health & Fitness (31 answers total)
This never happens to me, and I'd be worried if it did. Have you seen a doctor about this?
posted by pmbuko at 10:22 PM on July 21, 2005

there is a medical condition (sorry, i don't know the name) where the pattern-recognition part of the brain works, but the emotional-attachment part doesn't, so that you can see a relative and identify him or her, but you don't have the emotional response you would normally have. people with the disorder will sometimes claim that their mother has been replaced by a robot or something. i think this normally happens after a traumatic head injury. you should probably talk to a neurologist about this to make sure everything's ok.
posted by clarahamster at 10:31 PM on July 21, 2005

Me neither. My gut reaction, based on no psychological expertise whatsoever, is there's something freaky is going on. Losing your train on thought for a moment is pretty normal. But losing close relationships, or letters of the alphabet, even for a second--that's something else.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:32 PM on July 21, 2005

Whoa. I thought this question would be more in terms of "Sometimes I can't quite find the right word," or "Sometimes I forget [random acquaintance]'s birthday." That type of thing is normal (at least, I hope it is).

IANAD, but to me, mental blanks involving specific, singular facts (like above) are all right -- categorical blanks (like you describe) are probably indicative of a problem. I also recommend you see a doctor.
posted by jenovus at 10:32 PM on July 21, 2005

I sometimes have mental blanks where I cannot remember a specific word or name of an object. But I can always circumlocute to convey my meaning.

I would also recommend seeing a doctor, especially since it has been happening for years.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:38 PM on July 21, 2005

Clarahamster refers to Capgras syndrome. That is an extremely rare neurological condition resulting in fixed delusions that persist for many years, and not what is going on here.

Brief attacks of jamais vu, which are exactly what you're describing: the feeling that something that ought to be familiar is in fact wholly unfamiliar - are occasionally a manifestation of temporal lobe epilepsy. Sometimes they are the only manifestation. I'm not aware of other causes of this. The familiar things are often mundane and without emotional connotation - a street one often walks down; or a common household object; or, say, the letter H.

Feelings of derealization or depersonalization, or brief feelings of unreality or unfamiliarity, are common for psychological reasons, and most commonly attach themselves to things with emotional connotations, like a family member, girlfriend, or your own face.

If these start to bother you, or if other people start reporting to you that you are having staring spells or periods of unresponsiveness, you may want to see a doctor.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:40 PM on July 21, 2005

Clarahamster, could you be thinking of depersonalization disorder?
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:41 PM on July 21, 2005

Response by poster: What a terrible shame, I thought everyone would have experienced this. I find it rather interesting. Thanks for your thoughts, of course, and thanks for putting a name to it, lkkyu2.

It has happened for at least ten years now, with no major effect, and it always resolves within 5 - 30 seconds, so I have never considered it particularly odd/worrying/dangerous/etc. I will mention it to my doctor next time I'm there though. (I can maintain a conversation with someone while it happens, so it's not like I phase out or anything luckily.)
posted by wackybrit at 10:46 PM on July 21, 2005

I have felt mental blanks like this before when looking at friends/family/myself in the mirror. Just kind of a feeling that you don't recognize yourself or that you are looking at someone/something in a way that you are more conscious of them then you usually are. Does that make sense? It's kind of like a hyper-awareness.

My friends and I, who are writers, have talked about having the same feeling of hyper-awareness with words. For example, we have looked at a word that we write or use regularly and for a moment it just seems that its spelling or pronunciation is completely ridiculous. Every now and again I would also say that I have a moment where I cannot spell a word which I use every day -- my most vivid memory is have to think pretty hard while trying to write the word "that".

But I do have to say, those feelings only last a few seconds and certainly don't happen on a regular basis. I would say that when they do happen it is at a moment where I am feeling particularly stressed, have had little sleep, or am feeling dazed. I would also say that not all of these moments are related to memory. It's not that I don't remember who I am when I look in the mirror as much as I simply don't recognize myself.

Don't you think a lot of this has to do with the fact that we take for granted faces, letters, words, numbers and other things that we see every day? I think, for me, this happens when, for just a second, I really look hard at something I have never really noticed before.

I wouldn't necesarily go running to a doctor. I would say keep an eye on it and take note of when it happens. That may help to explain why it is happening. If it starts to make you feel scared, affect the way you live your life or happen regularly for longer periods of time, then you should seek help.
posted by ebeeb at 10:53 PM on July 21, 2005

nakedcodemonkey: Clarahamster, could you be thinking of depersonalization disorder?

it was capgras syndrome, like ikkyu2 suggested. it's interesting and slightly similar to what wackybrit is talking about, but far, far more severe: link
posted by clarahamster at 2:28 AM on July 22, 2005

Every so often I get this feeling that I am looking at something for the first time, such as the bus I ride on twice daily, or a family members face. It feels a little like part of the knowledge of what I am looking at is delayed and I just 'see' instead of 'recognise'. It take 5 seconds to see as I would normally.

The same is very true of words. Often at work the editor and I talk about this, when one of us gets confused about a word.

In relation to photos, I think it must be more common than some of the earlier comments suggest. At art school I was taught to look at something for its shape, hue, tone, contrast, etc. If I was to try drawing somebody thinking about how I believe they look then details such as eyes, nose, lips and ears would be distorted. Your description reminds me of something I was taught to do.
posted by skarmj at 3:12 AM on July 22, 2005

In the link from clarahamster it says "despite recognition of familiarity in appearance and behaviour" whereas wackybrit said it was "like I don't know that person". These don't seem to fit together, so it doesn't seem to me like it would be capgras syndrome. However, I have no particular knowledge of the syndrome.
posted by skarmj at 3:28 AM on July 22, 2005

I, like ebeeb, have noticed this quite frequently occuring with words. Usually I'll be in the middle of reading a sentence in print and I'll hang on a certain word. I'll sit there and look at it, and all I see is the specific details of the font characters and the visual aspects. The word in and of itself loses all connotation and to think that it's supposed to actually convey something to me is quite amusing at the time. I've had this happen on and off with varying frequency since my early teens. Never had it occur with people or other types of images though. Very interesting responses, I enjoyed reading them.
posted by prostyle at 6:21 AM on July 22, 2005

Like ebeeb and prostyle, I occasionally find myself looking at a highly familiar word with sudden confusion, as if the arrangement of letters itself is somehow not processing. I've also gone through periods where I found myself looking at everyday objects and marvelling over their colors as if I'd never seen red or yellow before in my life. The first sensation passes quickly and doesn't worry me, the second is actually rather fun and I'm sorry I haven't experienced it in a year or two.
posted by clever sheep at 6:44 AM on July 22, 2005

I've gotten this feeling in the past, though not very often. I love it - In the moment it's pretty disconcerting, but directly afterwards I love the sensation - It makes me feel like I'm seeing something for the first time... again.
posted by soplerfo at 6:58 AM on July 22, 2005

Hmm, I have the symptoms mentioned by clever sheep above, but I also seem to have the problem opposite wackybrit. Sometimes I will inexplicably have an intense and inappropriate emotional response to something utterly mundane. Fortunately it stays limited to the inside of my skull, and I don't act on these impulses -- if I followed through on the urge to embrace and kiss the perfect stranger at the rental car agency as though she was my lover I would likely be met with an entirely appropriate (and painful) response. And maybe jail time.
posted by mkhall at 7:03 AM on July 22, 2005

If you look at a word for a long time, it ceases to have its usual meaning, becomes just an odd shape, and you can't even tell whether it's spelled correctly anymore. This is normal. I have also had something similar happen with pictures of people, particularly famous ones, if I look at them for a long time. I remember this happening to me with a picture of Tom Selleck in a magazine once -- after I looked long enough I began to be unsure it was actually Selleck. It went away when I looked at another picture for a moment and then came back to his.
posted by kindall at 7:16 AM on July 22, 2005

Another vote here for "I have that with words but never people."
posted by Aknaton at 7:21 AM on July 22, 2005

I have this with faces - specifically images on screen or paper. If I look for a while, a kind of disconnect happens, and I see all the features separately and it all seems very strange. Then the whole image is restored (i.e. it seems to be a face again, rather than a jumble of features, though nothing seems to move when I have this disconnect)...

it is odd. The word thing I can understand, under the influence of tiredness, but the face thing is just weird.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2005

This used to happen to me a lot more often before I started taking medication for panic attacks. I'm pretty sure that it's not something to worry too much about--to me, it sounds like a bit of derealization/depersonalization. When I told my psychiatrist about those symptoms, he didn't seem surprised or worried and said it was really common with depersonalization. If you google that disorder, I think you might find that your symptoms match. The only difference for me is that the feeling bugs me quite a bit. I find it really unsettling. I should note that it's not a really intense feeling--just a sort of strange moment of things seeming unfamiliar.
posted by fabesfaves at 7:45 AM on July 22, 2005

Maybe you could read some of the works of Dr. Oliver Sacks and see if you recognize yourself in any of his descriptions? I think it would be a good idea to at least mention this to a doctor, since obviously none of us on this board can diagnose you (and any actual neurologists reading this would not be able to answer for legal reasons).

As for my own personal anecdotal experience, I have been able to do the thing with repeating a word until it becomes unfamiliar, or shift my thinking so that the streets I walk down every day feel like a new city, but what you are describing sounds like a different-colored animal from that kind of thing.
posted by matildaben at 8:19 AM on July 22, 2005

As for words, I have this as well at times and I should add that when it happens, the word in question also seems suddenly very silly. It's as if the word 'falls apart' and breaks down into a random collection of letters. After a few seconds I 'piece the word back together again'.

Still, it happens only rarely, and I can't remember ever having this experience with regards to people (perhaps if we're very loosely acquainted, but not family or otherwise close).
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:40 AM on July 22, 2005

Response by poster: I've slept on it, and perhaps can articulate myself better now, thanks to your great answers.

It's more a "emotions taking time to catch up" feeling. It tends to happen with photos a lot more, as someone else said above, but is not exclusive to them. I logically know who the person is, but do not feel I "know" them (emotionally). Shortly thereafter, it's like the emotional memory hard drive has spun back up again and it comes back.

However, I feel there's probably a bit depersonalization going on as well. I have strong control over my emotions and have become very trained at not feeling negative ones, so this may be a cause of slightly faulty emotional memory :) I'm not concerned, however (unsurprisingly!)

Thanks for your excellent answers, and it's nice to hear that other people have as much fun in working out their own brains as I do :)
posted by wackybrit at 10:03 AM on July 22, 2005

I've had this kind of weird hyper-awareness with words that some folks have mentioned -- mostly if I use it a lot, actually. Like stamping "Wyoming" on a bunch of books and having this feeling that "Wyoming" must be the weirdest word ever.

Nothing to do with forgetting people, though. I do know a guy who forgot how to sit down, once.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:08 AM on July 22, 2005

I have this, except it centers around locations and directions. I'll run to the store to get bread, but the minute I walk into the store I have no idea why I'm there- not only do I forget I went to get bread, I forget going *to* the store entirely. All of a sudden, I'm just at the store and it makes no sense. After a moment or two, I remember the bread and the trip to get the bread and all is well.

More irritating is when I'm driving somewhere and I suddenly can't remember how to get from point A to point B. I get lost on a side of town I've lived in all my life on a fairly regular basis. So, I spend five or ten minutes driving around aimlessly until I see something I recognize or I remember how to get to point B.

So... you're not alone! Now as to whether we should go to the doctor, that's another question!
posted by headspace at 10:24 AM on July 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

Do you have migraines? It reminds me a little of what's going on with this guy. (He's got a great blog, btw)

Of course, please see a doctor.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:36 AM on July 22, 2005

Sounds like a little disassociation to me.

May not be a big deal. But letting the doc know couldn't hurt.
posted by konolia at 1:15 PM on July 22, 2005

I've had similar experiences in conjunction with migraines. I would lose the ability to read and use the wrong words for things.
posted by Carbolic at 1:38 PM on July 22, 2005

I've had this kind of weird hyper-awareness with words that some folks have mentioned -- mostly if I use it a lot, actually. Like stamping "Wyoming" on a bunch of books and having this feeling that "Wyoming" must be the weirdest word ever.

This experience is very common. The term of art for it is "semantic satiation".
posted by redfoxtail at 6:25 PM on July 22, 2005

Well, "Wyoming" IS a pretty weird word...
posted by small_ruminant at 11:26 PM on July 22, 2005

This just happened to me (in the 'What-the-hell-this-is-not-a-word' sense) on my own AskMe post. I had just resigned myself to the fact that the best answer was indeed correct (i.e., you can't stop phishers by spamming their phish-nets), and I typed 'sigh' to try to convey my sense of hopelessness at not being able to do so.

Well, I stared at that word 'sigh' like I'd never seen it before. It didn't mean a thing to me. I spelled it out loud and was convinced I had typed a word that didn't exist. I finally went to and looked it up.

This has happened to me a few times, but it always seems a bit weird.
posted by trip and a half at 12:29 AM on July 23, 2005

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