So, I was watching this Vsauce youtube video, which discusses Déjà vu, Presque vu, and Jamais vu. Now, all three concepts are something I'm aware of and have experienced, but it made me think of another experience that is somewhat simpler.

There are times, especially back when I was in college, where I would read a paragraph of a text. After reading it, I'd realize that none of what I read "sunk in" - I don't understand what I read or maybe can't even really recall what I read. I'll have to reread the same sentence or paragraph 3 or more times before I finally grasp it enough to move on. Typically, these passages aren't complex - they don't have any long words and don't discuss any complex topics but still for whatever reason I just didn't "get it". After that line, I'm quite capable of continuing to read with no other issues, so it's not just a pure lack of concentration or being tired or whatnot.

Is there a term similar to Déjà, Presque, and Jamais vu for this phenomena?

Also, I apologize if the title doesn't perfectly fit the question...I was having trouble explaining the question in so few words...

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    The term is stoned. ;-)
    – Drew
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 20:53
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    I'm unclear why this noncomprehension is being linked to the Vu brothers at all.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 20:55
  • Distracted, inattentive, unfocused. I don't see a connection with déjà vu.
    – KCH
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 20:56
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    It sounds like you might be experiencing a temporary cognitive overload experience. I don't know that it has a simple 'name'. Reading about cognitive load theory might get you pointed in the right direction. It can be momentary and results in failure to incorporate things into memory. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 21:02
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    @medica I had to read 'temporary cognitive overload experience' several times. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 21:52

6 Answers 6


Though less elegant than Jamais Vu, I believe what you (and we all) experience is Temporary Cognitive Overload. Terribly oversimplifying, I'll use imprecise language in favor of concepts, and deal only with reading. I bold not to shout but to present bites. (TL:DR just read bold.)

Cognitive load theory and schema theory go hand in hand in learning (theory). Schemas are frameworks of information (like a steel-framed skyscraper in your mind); they start as very basic ("This is a cell") and become more complex and facile ("NADH-Q oxidoreductase, Q-cytochrome c oxidoreductase, and cytochrome c oxidase are mitochondrial transmembranous enzyme complexes responsible for oxidative phosphorylation, blah balh".) They allow (and form) Long Term Memory. We need a framework ("cell") into which we can stick a fact before we can remember it for more than a very few minutes. The more we know about something (the better our schemas are), the more easily we learn. Working Memory (WM) allows us to process what we read and place it into a schema so that we can remember it. We have limited Working Memory (processing ability) available to us at any given time. Efficient processing => Long Term Memory (LTM).

  • Inefficient Processing => What Did I Just Read? (I know I read it, I know it was in a language I understand, I understood it, but I can't remember what the hell it said.) IP /= schema identification /= LTM.

  • Efficient processing => OK, That Makes Sense; What's Next? (This relates to things I know; how does it relate to things I'm about to be exposed to?) EP => schema identification => LTM.

Cognitive Load takes up processing speed (reducing WM). If cognitive load is great enough, all WM is used up, and we will be unable to identify/form a schema. There are several types of Cognitive load: intrinsic (how complex the information is), extrinsic/ineffective (a bunch of things including distractions, emotionally demanding states [e.g. stress], and especially the way in which material is presented, e.g. inducing splitting of attention, etc.) and germane (what's left over to actually form schemas). They are (kind of) additive. Good schemas reduce cognitive load (increasing WM).

If you are reading at your limit of WM, one final additional 'load' will make you unable to remember what you have just/will immediately read. Because Cognitive Overload does not disappear immediately upon reduction of load (e.g. you are alarmed that you have not remembered what you read, so you decrease attention splits, and commit to rereading with intent), you need a few moments to experience reduced load before you regain WM. That's why your second reading, if immediate, might not sink in, whereas if you got up, sipped water, and sat down again, you might have enough recovery time to regain WM. If you're not suddenly anxious, which would decrease WM. Etc.

Just a quick aside, if 100 people write which or deer or else or other easy word you're familiar with 30 times in one minute, ~70% will begin to doubt that it is a real word. This is Jamais Vu on a cognitive overload scale!

Answer: it's called Temporary Cognitive Overload.

Schema theory in about 40 easy steps.

There are no quick and dirty cognitive theory papers. Wiki will have to do.


Informally, I would refer to the phenomenon you're describing as spacing out or zoning out. I don't know if these are solely American English idioms. More formally, you could say that you lost focus or that what you were reading didn't sink in.

All of these terms suggest that you weren't thinking about anything else in particular--if you were, it would be daydreaming.


As an idiom:

go over someone's head

(idiomatic) To escape someone's comprehension.

I listened carefully, but the technical jargon went over my head.

As a formal phrase:

reading incomprehension


The fault may lie not in your own attention or cognitive ability, but in the text you are reading. Some texts are more easily read than others--not because of complexity of the language or concepts, but because of being poorly constructed, perhaps vague, having unexpected word choices, strange lexical pairings, nonstandard syntax, or being written in a needlessly pedantic style. The previous sentence may serve as an example.


We all go through this. And the most common term I hear is brain fart.

When you are attempting to remember something very obvious, something that you know you should know. This feeling often leads to head banging and hair pulling.

You can say you were dazed or had a momentary lapse but it is clearer to say you had a brain fart.


Your word blindness is a hysterical form of Alexia -stress induced, or just too much fun

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    Please do more than learn words and then use them in answers. Alexia is a serious neurological condition, and the common experience we all have of What did I just read? is not alexia. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 5:07
  • Hysterical: dictionary.reference.com/browse/hysterical
    – Third News
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 5:49
  • Sorry, but no go. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 6:00

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