It's one of the most maddening parts of being human. It's one of those moments when I can feel my brain working, can practically see the wheels spinning, but I'm not making contact. You know the word you want, but you can't quite recall it, or you can only remember a letter in the word, or how many letters it has. I tend to squinch up my face, and then there's a physical feeling of being so ... damn ... close — but not there.
Scientists call it Tip-of-the-Tongue syndrome (or TOT), and it's something that has been with us probably as long as we've had large vocabularies (and lived long enough to start forgetting parts of them). College-aged people tend to experience TOT a couple times a week, whereas by the time most people reach 65, they experience them at about twice that rate; even once a day is still considered normal.
Interestingly, TOT happens to children too. No one is immune. And nope, it's not technology or modern life that causes them either. According to this excellent paper — which summarizes much of the studies on TOT — "TOTs are universal experiences among people of all languages and cultures."
"It's really hard to say what causes it," Gary Small, M.D., professor of psychiatry and aging at the UCLA Semel Institute, told Mashable. "I don't think we've had enough research on it. But we do know that as our brains age, our neurons don't communicate as effectively as they did when they were younger ... The retrieval process becomes less efficient."
It's sometimes called a brain "traffic jam" because brain imaging shows that's exactly what happens to the pathways in the brain as a person tries to remember an elusive word. One theory is that as we age, and the neurological pathways become thicker and more profuse, the more likely we are to miss a connection here or there.
Some people (and even some scientists) recommend mentally walking away from trying to remember the word — it's more likely to pop up that way. Or, you could think of similar words and pull up Thesaurus.com and run your eyes down the list of words (that's what I do, because otherwise I get really annoyed). That works for me about 50 percent of the time. Of course that doesn't work when the word you're trying to remember is someone's name — that's a really common category for me.
Deborah Burke, a psychology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, who has researched TOT, explained the concept to the Orlando Sentinel: "It has to do with not being able to remember what the word sounds like. A word is retrieved by remembering its sound. People are twice as likely to find the word if something they read or hear during a TOT shares some of the missing word's sounds.''
So it seems that maybe scanning a passage or newspaper article could help spur your memory, since you're likely to come across a similar word while you're reading. (Just an idea.)
While TOT has been studied since the mid-1960s, it continues to receive attention from academics in the fields of neurology, psychology and linguists because it touches on all of their areas of study.
So the next time TOT happens to you, try not to obsess, and remember — it's just part of being human.
Related on MNN:
- Chocolate may improve your memory
- Bad memories can be transformed into bad memories with 'flip of the switch'
- 5 things your brain does better than a computer