Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon

By: Nellie Nguyen

Image Credit: Flickr @ CollegeDegrees360

Whether it’s during a casual conversation or a stressful interview, it is a frustrating, universal experience for people to suddenly fail to retrieve a familiar word or phrase, despite technically knowing what they mean. The word or phrase feels as if it is just out of reach, and people can get as close as knowing the first letter of the word they are looking for while experiencing this temporary “memory loss.”

This phenomenon is referred to as the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon, also known as lethologica, which is the Ancient Greek term for “forgetfulness” and “relating to thought or reason.” It occurs when the temporal and frontal areas of the brain fail for a short period of time, causing a brief failure to retrieve words or names stored in memory. It is more likely to happen while a person is multitasking or experiencing fatigue, and it is actually more likely to happen as a person ages. One notable explanation for the occurrence of this phenomenon is that it serves as an “alarm” or “warning signal” to the brain to address an issue. For instance, a person may experience this before an exam or competition, and this would let the person know that he or she should probably study the information to memorize it better.

Scientists and researchers have been able to find interesting discoveries while analyzing this phenomenon, such as how common it is around the world. Surveys reveal that nearly 90% of speakers that use various different languages from around the world experience similar moments that relate to temporarily forgetting a word or phrase. Additionally, scientists have also found that it is common for people to remember bits of information relating to the memory they cannot fully remember, such as syllables, what the beginning letter is, and even what the word “sounded” like.

While there is no real way for people to completely prevent this phenomenon from happening, there are ways to help lessen the frustration and struggle that arises from experiencing it. One suggestion is to say the words out loud, even if they are not quite the words that one is trying to remember. Saying these words out loud could help stimulate the brain’s phonological network, which could help with finding the right answer. Another suggestion, though not quite as common, is clenching one’s left hand into a fist to improve recall. However, the most recommended method of dealing with the tip of the tongue is to simply forget about trying to figure out the word and to move forward.

The last suggestion initially sounds frustrating to many people, and it might not even make sense because then a person has no chance of satisfaction from finally finding the right word. However, the panic that arises from not remembering something could make it even more difficult for the brain to concentrate on recalling the information, making the process counterproductive. The additional stress and tension on the brain could send it into a “fight-or-flight” mode, causing the brain to take an even longer time to return to a regular, functioning state.

While experiencing this phenomenon has no serious consequences, it is still worth understanding and researching. The study of the tip of the tongue phenomenon has led researchers to discover other important information relating to memory and the recollection process of the brain. For instance, a study done about the phenomenon led to information about how it is possibly a result of implicit memory, which is the learning of complex information in ways where people are unaware that they actually learned it. Also, understanding the tip of the tongue syndrome and knowing the best ways to deal with it can save a person some frustration and stress throughout the day.

Educational Content:

Q: How does the tip of the tongue phenomenon happen?

A: According to surveys and research, tip of the tongue seems to happen when a person is multitasking or feeling drowsy and tired, and it can also arise from simply not understanding information well enough. It happens due to a malfunction in a person’s retrieval process of memories and information. It is described to also be a sign or warning to signal someone about a problem that is happening, such as needing rest if a person is not well-rested. Another common example is forgetting key topics during a crucial exam, which would signify that more studying should be done to better remember the information.

Q: Are there any ways to help prevent the tip of the tongue phenomenon from happening?

A: There technically is no way to completely avoid tip of the tongue syndrome, but there are some suggested methods to deal with it while it is occurring, such as verbalizing words that are similar to the target word. However, the most recommended method is to stop trying to figure out the word and move on. Ironically, even when a person finally figures out the word, it is actually likely for him or her to forget it again in a future instance. With this fact, it is highly suggested for people to not try and find out what the word they are searching for to prevent stressing their brain and taking a longer time to return to a functioning state.






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