January 23, 2019
You are watching TV and you see an actor who played a leading role in a sitcom you used to love. Now, what was the name of that show? If you could just remember the character he played, or the first letter of the title, or make some other connection that will close a vital synapse in your brain. You think that the first word starts with a B and has two syllables. You know you can remember this: It’s right on the tip of your tongue.
It’s a sensation that we are all familiar with, according to Verywellmind—and it turns out that this common state actually has a name. It is known as lethologica or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. Psychologists define this phenomenon as a feeling that accompanies the temporary inability to retrieve information from memory.
And if you become obsessed with recalling that word, it’s called loganamnosis. Most of us try not to torment ourselves for too long in the belief (perhaps mistaken) that, if we forget about it for a few moments, it will just “come” to us. When something finally does trigger the retrieval of the memory—or when someone else offers up the missing information—the relief of those feelings of frustration is palpable.
Indeed, it really does happen to most of us. Surveys suggest that about 90% of speakers worldwide experience the tip of the tongue phenomenon—and that older adults may have these “senior moments” as often as once a day, while younger folks may find themselves searching for a word about once a week.
According to Verywellmind, some researchers have found that tip-of-the-tongue states may play an adaptive role in the memory and learning process—that the more time people spend attending to a tip-of-the-tongue experience, the better their learning and memory of that material will be in the future.
However, based on results of a study conducted at McMaster University in Ontario—and published in Science News—other researchers have found that concentrating on recalling information that seems to be on the tip of your tongue may actually be problematic. While it may be tempting to spend some time struggling to find the answer, psychologists Karin Humphreys and Amy Beth Warriner suggest that the more time you spend trying to remember a word on the tip of your tongue, the more likely that you’ll struggle with the word again in the future.
“It’s akin to spinning one’s tires in the snow: Despite your perseverance, you’re only digging yourself a deeper rut,” the researchers explained in their report.
Humphreys own interest in the topic came from personal experience struggling to remember certain words that seemed to continually pose a challenge.
“This can be incredibly frustrating—you know you know the word, but you just can’t quite get it,” she notes. “And once you have it, it is such a relief that you can’t imagine ever forgetting it again. But then you do. So we began thinking about the mechanisms that might underlie this phenomenon.”
What they found after challenging 30 students to see if they could retrieve words after being given a definition—e.g., “What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves?” (Answer: abacus)—was that it might not be a case of everyone having certain words that are difficult for them to remember, but that by getting into a tip-of-the-tongue state on a particular word once, they actually learn to go into that incorrect state when they try to retrieve the same word again.”
When they repeated the questions two days later, the subjects tended to experience tip-of-the-tongue on the same words they had difficulty retrieving before. The longer the time they had spent in the error state, the greater the problem in finding the word again.
Warriner advises that, to break the cycle, it is best to repeat the retrieved word to yourself, either silently or aloud, several times.
The good news, according to Verywellmind, is that, while tip-of-the-tongue states are often learned and tend to recur, the incorrect learning can be corrected either through resolving the problem spontaneously or by using cues to trigger the retrieval of the information. And it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. You just may be stressed out or tired.
Finally, if you ever have had that elusive answer suddenly pop into your head, often when you were not even trying to think of it, then you have experienced the “spontaneous resolution” of lethologica.
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