Obviously we have various terms to communicate specific shared states of mind:

Déjà vu - the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time...

Cognitive Dissonance - anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes...

“On the Tip of one's Tongue” - Fig. [of a thought or idea] about to be said or almost remembered....


Likewise, I'm talking about a very specific cognitive state, that I'm sure most everyone has experienced, where you are unable to link or hold together multiple conceptions in order to achieve a final result.

You're able to think through the first few steps, but the whole thing breaks down and becomes incoherent. You can't quite reach that final outcome or solution, but it's right there almost within reach.

Then of course you run through it again, step by step, trying to 'take another run at it' – or perhaps another way to think about the problem - - but again, you just can't quite make that final iterative step to nail the solution.

I'm looking for something other than “dumb”, or “simple minded”, or anything too general or unduly pejorative – a term that can apply to anyone in such a situation, but it's pretty rare – and memorable - like Deja vu – or “tip of one's tongue”, but it's nothing to do with memory – it's specific to the building of something in your mind based on component conceptions.

A specific example I remember from years ago (but by no means limited to this) is the “Prisoners and Hats Puzzle” whereby to figure it out in your head you basically have to step through and hold present all the scenarios. (I forget what version of the puzzle I was first given.)

I recently came across another example regarding multivariate scenarios of baseball plays.



  • What about "something doesn't quite add up"?
    – Catija
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 2:33
  • 1
    I would probably say confounded.
    – Dare
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 2:34
  • I'm also reminded of the Bugs Bunny cartoon with the bomb in the piano (except obviously there he does it on purpose.)
    – ipso
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 2:52
  • Is this mental state you're thinking of exclusive to people who have no way of making notes or working things out on paper? If so, then I'd argue that the problem must at least partially be related to an overload of short-term memory; if it is possible to solve the problem when those tools are to hand but not otherwise, then the issue is not an inherent inability to link or hold together multiple concepts. Meanwhile, the term 'mental block' comes to mind as a catch-all term for a cognitive difficulty in being able to figure out the answer to a problem.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 7:56
  • It's not about not having paper/tools, although that may indeed help you solve the problem and work through it. It's not a “defect”. Think of it as a natural failure point, and obviously that's different for each individual. I think you can get “high-centered” on certain complex puzzles, and it creates an interesting dilemma moment when you are on the edge of your capabilities.
    – ipso
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 9:37

9 Answers 9


By analogy with déjà vu and jamais vu, how about "Presque vu"? (almost seen). It feels right, so I've probably seen it, but not necessarily in an English text.

  • Sounds by far the best so far. Thank you!
    – ipso
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 23:38

"I can't see the wood for the trees" would be applicable here, though more colourful than terms such as "cognitive dissonance". The implication being that while focussing on the components (the "trees") you are unable to see the overall or combined pattern ("the wood", i.e. woodland, forest).

Perhaps "(Temporary) Cognitive Deficit" is a dryer term for this phenomenon.

More colloquially, I've heard the term "Brain Fart" used for this cognitive state.


"Cognitive overload" describes the inability to hold all the necessary information in your head at one time, but it's not specific to being on the cusp of a solution.


I'd call this being scatterbrained

According to MacMillan:

Not able to think clearly:confused, bewildered, perplexed...


My ability to link disparate concepts into a cohesive whole is sometimes impaired by limited working memory. When that happens, it's time to have a cup of coffee, take a nap, or go play pinball for an hour or two.

but it's nothing to do with memory

It's everything to do with memory, just not the long term storage kind of memory we usually mean when we talk about memory.

  • Makes perfect sense. I suppose all of the mind's function has to do with memory, one way or another. I don't see it as a defect or sickness though. As I imagine it, Einstein could have just as easily had this dilemma trying to work out General Relativity, until he got it. (Then again, maybe in 10 years I'll go all Howard Hughes and it was right there all along. Who knows.)
    – ipso
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:59

What about "on the brink"? As in "I am right on the brink of a breakthrough."


In mathematical research this is a common occurrence, and it is usually just called being stuck (on a problem). We also say things like I can't quite get my head around this and I cannot seem to see the wood for the trees.

It can be solved by talking about the problem with a colleague. It can also sometimes be solved by explaining all the fundamental concepts involved, at a basic level, to an imaginary lay person.

  • It's taken over 8 years for someone to come up with what is probably the best (almost certainly the most idiomatic) way to put this. There's irony somewhere. // Can you just add a dictionary definition for this common sense of 'stuck', please, D? Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 11:23

I'm not sure there is a precise answer for this, at least not in the same vein as 'deja vu." There are probably multiple possible examples of phrases that would come close.

The phrase "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink" is one metaphorical way to describe what you're referencing. The phrase refers to the idea that there is ample "water" available, but something (possibly inexplicable) prevents the "water" from being "drunk." This relates to the idea of seemingly having all the necessary elements for a solution to a problem, yet realizing the solution has not yet been realized.

  • Amended/expanded as requested. Hope that is helpful!
    – David W
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 3:10

flabbergasted, astounded or nonplussed maybe? although these are reactions mostly, or confounded with ideas

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