Tip of the Tongue

A phenomenon well-known by psychologists, and pretty much everyone else, is called ‘tip of the tongue’, and it’s described in this American Scientist article:

When we have something to say, we first retrieve the correct words from memory, then execute the steps for producing the word. When these cognitive processes don’t mesh smoothly, conversation stops.

Suppose you meet someone at a party. A coworker walks up, you turn to introduce your new acquaintance and suddenly you can’t remember your colleague’s name! My hunch is that almost all readers are nodding their heads, remembering a time that a similar event happened to them. These experiences are called tip-of-the-tongue (or TOT) states. A TOT state is a word-finding problem, a temporary and often frustrating inability to retrieve a known word at a given moment. TOT states are universal, occurring in many languages and at all ages.

The article goes on to explain that tip-of-the-tongue may be caused by weak connections between words and their phonology (their sound) in our brain; the weaker they are, the more likely it is that you will know a word, but you just can’t recall how to say it.

There’s also a general theory of memory, that we retrieve memories through their connections to other memories – the stronger the connections, the easier the recall. You can imagine a cascading chain of memories of a moment years ago, set off by a particular smell or piece of music from that day; or revising for a exam for months and months, baking those connections in.

What’s interesting is that these connections are now being externalised from our brain, and supplemented by computers and the internet. Here’s what I mean: earlier today, I needed to recall the name of someone who’d won a prize. I couldn’t remember what the prize was, what it was for, or even when this happened. I did, however, know that it would be in an email, and the email would contain the word ‘Jeremy’. So I did a search in my mail for ‘Jeremy’, and a quick scan of the search results later revealed the email.

I don’t relate this to show that I am some sort of search ace; far from it. Plenty of people use searches in their mail, their RSS feeds, their computers, or even the entire web, to supplement things that they already know but just can’t retrieve. These days, the searches are fast enough, and the information kept in databases broad enough, that this practice of laying down virtual connections is accelerating.

I expect that as we store increasing amounts of important information on computers, and we continually improve the speed and accessibility of searches (through, say, silent messaging), we will find it ever more difficult to see where our memory and recall processes end, and where those of our computers begin. We’ll be able to remember far more, far faster – and if we’re ever disconnected from our computers, it’ll be even more painful.

One Reply to “Tip of the Tongue”

  1. Hmm, this could potentially be very useful- perhaps people would be more forgiving if one used scientific terminology for forgetting their name. “Sorry, I’m just experiencing a momentary TOT state right now!”

    The article’s discussion about whether phonologically related words can help or hinder the resolution of a TOT state was quite interesting. After I read your post but before I read the article, I was wondering if there was a term for when these weak connections get confused with one another resulting in the wrong recall. For example, recently I was trying to recall the name of an archaeological site (Mashala) but my brain wouldn’t stop thinking of another site’s very similar sounding name (Madaba), even though I knew it wasn’t right. The article explained my experience spot on: if I’d been exposed to a word with the *just* same first syllable as my target word, it might have helped. But it was actually *too* phonetically related (Ma-a-a) as well as being in the same grammatical class (both proper nouns) so that it actually impeded the retrieval.

    So thanks, it was really neat to be able to dissect what went on in my brain! Now if I could just manage to insert Wikipedia into it…

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