Sunday, March 7, 2010

Science Explores "Tip of the Tongue Moments"

When you can't remember the words you want to use, it can be... Shoot, what's that word? I've used it hundreds of times previously, yet suddenly the word escapes me. Has that ever happened to you before? Odds are the answer is yes.

We've all had "tip of the tongue" moments, times when we know the definition of a word we're trying to say, but can't remember what the word is. New research suggests this forgetfulness may have to do with how often we use certain words. The discovery may have even helped scientists understand more about how the brain organizes and remembers language.

One leading idea for what causes these memory lapses is that when people try really hard to think of a forgotten word, an unrelated, similar-sounding word may come up in the brain and impede their ability to access the right word. This phenomenon is called phonological blocking. Previous studies have shown that bilingual people have tip-of-the-tongue moments more often than those who speak only one language. Experts have suggested that this is because people who speak two languages have twice as many possible words in their heads from which to choose. Additionally, they have twice as many words to act as phonological blockers, too - in both languages!

For insight into tip-of-the-tongue anomaly, researchers tested people who speak two languages. Additionally, they tested deaf people who use American Sign Language to communicate. The idea was that signs can't "sound" the same, so signers shouldn’t experience the same phonological blocking.

The results? Even Signers have "tip-of-the-fingers" experiences. Additionally, just as speakers can often recall the first letter of the word they're thinking of (like my forgotten word starts with an "f"), signers could sometimes think of part of the sign they were trying to remember. Signers more likely to recall a sign's hand shape, location on the body, and orientation, and less likely to remember its movement. And because they have tip-of-the-tongue moments as often as speakers do (about once a week), it is doubtful that phonological blockers are to blame.

The conclusion of the scientists was that our tip-of-the-tongue moments happen out of forgetfulness, based on how frequently or infrequently we use the word we're trying to remember. Basically, the less often we use a word, the harder it is for our brains to access it. This may be why tip-of-the-tongue moments are more common in bilingual speakers - if they use each language about half the time, they use every word in each language about half as often as people who use only one language.

I've been known to have my fair share of "tip of the tongue" moments. It can't be helped, part of my job is to have my own personal thesaurus stashed in my brain, so I'm bound to forget a word once in a while. It makes me feel better to know that this is a universal occurrence that could actually be related to how many words one knows and how often they are used.

And of course, now I recall the word I was trying to remember - Frustrating! It doesn't take a scientist to prove that tip-of-the-tongue moments can be extremely frustrating!

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