You’re mid-sentence during a meeting with your boss, working on The New York Times’ crossword puzzle, typing up an essay for grad school, or even talking to your mom on the phone and the next word you’re looking for just doesn’t … come. Maybe you remember the letter it starts with or the syllabic rhythm when it leaves your mouth. Psychologist William James was the first person to describe the TOT phenomenon in 1890.
The signs of it were unmistakable; he [the subject] would appear to be in mild torment, something like the brink of a sneeze, and if he found the word his relief was considerable. While searching for the target, [he] told us all the words that came to his mind. He volunteered the information that some of them resembled the target in sound but not in meaning; others he was sure were similar in meaning but not in sound.
So, what do today’s scientists think actually causes a brain fart? It could be psycholinguistic — a temporary breakdown in lexical word retrieval. Other researchers approach the phenomenon as a sign that something in the memory retrieval process has gone awry. Some believe a tip-of-the-tongue moment is the actual feeling that arises when retrieval fails.
The brain makes room for more important information to maintain its efficiency, taking the phrase “use it or lose it” literally. Small gives the example of phone numbers — we don’t have to remember them anymore, because they’re automatically stored in our smartphones. A new study even suggests that our memory includes a sort of “just-in-case file,” storing trivial information for later — which may further explain why we forget words we don’t use often.
We all experience tip-of-the-tongue syndrome. Despite being named after an English-language idiom, it’s known the world over. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a — “I have lost it on my tongue.” In Korean, the phenomenon is called hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da — “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” Even those with hearing loss experience “tip-of-the-fingers” syndrome during signing. Read more…